“Let’s take a break, Li Suyin,” Ling Qi said, releasing her friend from the hold she had pulled her into when Suyin overextended. The two of them had been training for a couple hours at this point, and even Ling Qi had begun to sweat a bit.
Li Suyin panted for breath, red-faced from exertion as she rubbed her throat, likely sore from Ling Qi’s grab. “I’m sorry. I should be better by now,” she said as she tried to catch her breath.
“You’re doing fine.” Ling Qi sighed. It was just the two of them at the vent. Bai Meizhen was at her new lessons with Elder Ying, and Su Ling was off gathering materials for some project of hers. “You surprised me with that wood art. When did you get that?”
“I-I did a few missions for the sect last week.” Li Suyin stumbled over her words as she caught her breath, dropping to the ground to begin meditating and recovering her qi. “I thought if I could take an attack, I could counter afterward.”
Ling Qi rubbed the knuckles on her right hand; she had scraped them pretty raw against the ridges of bark that the wood art’s technique had formed over her friend’s forearm. That had been the only time that Suyin had any success in jabbing her with those steel needles she had begun playing with too.
“That’s not a bad idea. Are you planning to use poison with those little things? I don’t really see them being much use otherwise.” Ling Qi left unsaid that in a real fight, Suyin only needed to land a touch to do some real damage with her family’s art.
The blue-haired girl cast a frustrated look at the gleaming needles in the new pouch at her belt. “No, not poison.” She narrowed her single eye at the implements. “I just… need to improve my precision.”
Ling Qi furrowed her brow as she sat down in the grass across from the other girl. She had to be careful not to have her dress ride up, but she was getting good at that. She still needed new shoes though.
“Like acupuncture or something?” Ling Qi asked, suddenly remembering why the needles had looked familiar. She had stolen a set to fence when she was ten.
“In a way,” Li Suyin said uncomfortably. “If I use my qi correctly and hit the right place, I can disrupt your qi flow. It would have caused minor muscle spasms in your arm for half a minute or so if it had worked.” She let out a tired breath. “I’m still not good enough though.”
“You’re doing fine,” Ling Qi replied firmly. “Don’t give yourself unreasonable expectations.” She winced as Li Suyin’s shoulders slumped. Ling Qi supposed that was a pretty rude thing for her to say.
“Anyway,” Ling Qi bulled forward, coughing into her hand. “Do you know anything about formations? Beyond what Elder Su taught us in class, I mean.”
Li Suyin’s expression grew briefly bewildered at the sudden change in subject. “Um, a little. I have not really had the time to study them beyond a few basic alarm and spirit wards for home.”
“I might have to ask you about those,” Ling Qi mused, briefly diverted at the idea. “I was hoping you could help me study some formations I have on hand. I thought working on them together would be a good use of our downtime. You’re better at this kind of thing than I am.”
“Oh! Of course. I will be happy to help you with anything you need, Ling Qi,” Li Suyin said brightly. Ling Qi silently congratulated herself; Suyin hadn’t looked so happy in weeks. “I mean - I hope I can help you… I have not had time to study much of late.” And just like that, her friend had started to beat herself up again.
“No time like the present,” Ling Qi hurried to add, drawing the tokens out of her storage ring where she had placed them in preparation. “So. The tokens are kind of like puzzles so I need your help in figuring out the solution.”
The two of them ended up heading back to Su Ling and Li Suyin’s hidey hole to study the tokens; Li Suyin apparently had a couple of basic primers on formations among her now somewhat tattered library. Ling Qi wondered how much the primers had cost her mortal family or if Suyin had purchased them herself since coming to the Sect.
Ling Qi probably could have gotten better primers by going to the archive, but that wasn’t the point. It was nice to just sit down at Su Ling and Li Suyin’s makeshift table in their cave home and study with Li Suyin again, working out the surprisingly complex puzzle on the formation tokens and trading questions with the academic. The fact that between the two of them, they managed to open both remaining tokens and receive the medicinal prizes within was just a bonus really.
Ling Qi was glad to see Li Suyin smiling again by the time they were done. “Thanks for the help, Li Suyin,” she said, feeling pretty pleased with herself. “I was worried that was going to take another few weeks to crack open.”
“It was no trouble,” the blue-haired girl replied happily, sliding the pill bottle she had unlocked over to Ling Qi. “I am glad to have been able to help you with something.”
“I’m glad I asked,” Ling Qi said, glancing around the little cave. It was still pretty rough, but it looked like the two were beginning to make it comfortable. “How long are you two going to stay out here anyway?” Ling Qi asked. “This place is starting to look nicer, but wouldn’t a real house be better?”
Li Suyin’s smile faded, and she reached up to toy nervously with her eyepatch. “I… do not know. I think Su Ling might actually prefer staying out here, and I am not certain I disagree,” she admitted. “At the very least, I want to challenge that girl before I even consider moving back. Just a few more weeks and I will break through to Yellow Soul. I know it.”
“I’ll look forward to celebrating your success,” Ling Qi said confidently, gathering up her new resources. She might just take the time to ensure Li Suyin got herself a fair fight too. It couldn’t hurt to keep an eye on the girl’s challenge to make sure no one pulled anything untoward.
With the tokens taken care of, Ling Qi began to focus on cultivation and training; she had broken through to the second realm, but it wasn’t enough. If she slowed down, she knew it would make her a target and drag Meizhen down too.
Ling Qi spent much of her mornings with the pale girl, sharing the slip for the Argent Mirror art and practicing the art herself. She enjoyed cultivating it, if only because her stresses and worries seemed less urgent while she was cultivating the tranquil qi of lake and mountain. It put things a little more in perspective. As the days passed and she continued to practice, she felt more sure of herself, more confident in her growing abilities. Constant self-reflection was not entirely positive though as she found herself thinking more and more about her goals… or lack thereof.
Strength and freedom were something to strive toward, but the more she thought about it, the more they seemed empty to her when considered alone. What did she want to achieve with the strength she was gaining? Protecting the handful of people she had become close to, of course, as well as surviving, but these goals were short-term and reactionary. What did she want to do with her life?
LIng Qi couldn’t answer that question yet, but somehow, she thought that was fine. She had time now to think and decide for herself. She would train hard at the Sect, fulfill her service to the Empire, and figure things out along the way. She wasn’t a mortal anymore, doomed to die after a mere few decades. She had time.
The thought and qi exercises that made up the first level of the art she had found, Argent Mirror, were simple and intuitive. The techniques bolstered spiritual defenses and defended against illusions. Yet when she felt the serene qi of mountain and lake flow through the channels she had opened in her head and spine, Ling Qi was amazed. Her senses were clearer, and the world around her more vibrant than ever. It was as if she had worn a dirty veil over her eyes for all her life, only to finally remove it. With her new senses came a sense for qi and the capability to see the cultivation stage of living things within her range.
Even with spending time on the cultivation of other arts, she soon felt her Argent Foundation settle fully into place as well. Mastery of the last exercise in the Argent Soul scroll opened her further to cultivation, qi seeping into her flesh and bones like a strengthening elixir and thickening the layer of pure energy around her dantian. She had taken the art as far as she could given the information she had.
This, of course, simply meant that it was time to begin working on Eight Phase Ceremony, which proved difficult. The initial exercises required that she practice at night and find a high, isolated place to meditate. Even with the clarity granted by Argent Soul, she found herself unable to even sense the qi of the stars and moon, let alone draw it in and absorb it. She was going to need more time to figure it out.
Luckily, Ling Qi had grown better at managing her time; she now knew just how much time she actually needed to sleep over the course of a week and how much she should cultivate before doing so grew inefficient. She spent a significant amount of her freed-up time to browse the archives for information on Spirit Beasts and how to take care of the young ones.
She had a bit of frustration at first due to her failure to figure out the archive’s organization system. Ling Qi ended up poking through all sorts of only tangentially related texts before noticing the helpful - if tiny - signs indicating sections plated to the shelves. Thankfully, the archive was not busy in the dead of night so the only ones who witnessed her awkward wanderings were the bored older disciple reshelving and cleaning and Xuan Shi.
Ling Qi wasn’t sure Xuan Shi even noticed. The boy had a table in the corner stacked with dozens of books and scrolls and barely looked up from his manuscripts even when she passed through the nearby shelves. It was weird; the pile wasn’t even comprised of formation texts or technique scrolls. She saw a couple of history texts and scholarly treatises, but some of the titles looked like fiction.
She supposed Xuan Shi could do whatever he wanted with Ji Rong’s pass so she didn’t pay the odd boy any further attention, finding her own table to sit at with a stack of bestiaries and other such texts she had pulled down from the shelves. It was a daunting task, particularly since she wasn’t a speed reader, but she wanted to make sure she knew what she was doing before she attempted to hatch the egg.
She spent a few nights like that, studying up on animal care and tortoise species in particular. The Volcanic Tyrant Tortoise was apparently native to the fiery islands of the northern ocean. It only rarely appeared on the mainland so the Sect’s information was limited. They were classified as spirits of fire and mountain under the imperial system and were noted as a temperamental and destructive species, prone to a great deal of collateral damage when angered. There was even less information on the care for their young as the creatures rarely bred outside of their home islands, but she did find out that they usually made their nests in lava fields and calderas.
Ling Qi had never imagined that the earth could bleed fire, but apparently, that was possible in those distant lands. She didn’t think she could acquire a volcanic vent anywhere though. Thankfully, one particularly musty tome suggested that its writer had found some success with placing an egg in a firing kiln for incubation. A large bonfire was also a possible solution, although this method was slower.
Ling Qi considered using the kilns in the production halls, but she had a feeling that would cost far too many sect points in the long run. Plus, it might not be safe to broadcast her fortune in public yet. A quick run to a different part of the archive revealed some simple methods for constructing crude kilns and forges in the treatises on historical engineering. It might take a few tries, but she thought she could rig together something that would work.
On actual care, there wasn’t much of anything specific to tortoises so she would have to wing it there. In general, the cores of other beasts and heavily qi-infused materials seemed to be the best food for young spirit beasts. She would probably have to hunt more once the egg hatched.
For now, although she had a few ideas for hatching the egg, it would take time to set up, and she still had many things to do this week. She settled for leaving it in the hearth of their home for now The first was to try to patch things up with Han Jian. Hopefully, revealing the tokens’ prizes would be a good way to get herself involved with them on a level past the superficial. Ling Qi waited until the day’s session was winding down before approaching Han Jian, who had sat down to clean and sharpen his blade in the wake of the sparring.
“Han Jian, do you mind if I ask you something?” she asked, stopping at a respectful distance away. The others were all doing their own various cool down activities.
Han Jian looked up from his blade, his usual friendly expression in place. “Sure. Did you want to ask about a different weapon? You seem to be getting the hang of a bow pretty quickly,” he said, tactfully not pointing out the number of times she had overbalanced and fell over while learning to swing around the heavy guandao she had taken to practicing with.
She wouldn’t have been able to lift such a thing as a mortal, but as a cultivator, the weight wasn’t an issue. It was just hard to keep her balance when swinging the weapon around. She wasn’t really sure why she had chosen it beyond a whim and a brief imagining of standing atop the shell of her tortoise companion, laughing and crushing all comers like a warrior queen of old. ... Well, okay, she did know the reason. It was a little childish, but it wasn’t like she was doing any harm.
“No, it’s not that,” she answered. “Thank you for the instruction though.”
“It’s no trouble,” Han Jian said, laying his sword across his knees. “It’s good to have a varied base of weapon skills. I’m pretty good with a spear and saber too, even if I prefer the sword. I’d suggest taking the time to learn at least a little bit of the sword or spear at some point. It’s expected that a noble have some grounding with the four noble weapons.”
“Bai Meizhen has said some stuff like that too, but what do you mean? I’m not a noble. I know not all cultivators can be a noble else every city guard would be one too.”
Han Jian gave a strained smile, but it was Fan Yu who answered from where he had sat down to meditate. “Don’t play the fool,” he said sourly, giving her an unfriendly look. “At your rate of growth, you will end up with an imperial writ.”
Ling Qi stared at him blankly before turning back to Han Jian with a questioning look. He, in turn, scrubbed a hand through his hair and explained, “If you do not already have a clan affiliation, achieving Green Soul or Bronze Physique before the age of seventeen will earn you a writ granting the right to own a manor and start a clan once your service is over. It’s essentially the lowest title. You’ll have to negotiate with the province governor of wherever you settle to finalize the status. I don’t think you’re going to have any trouble with the requirements.”
“Oh,” Ling Qi said awkwardly. She hadn’t even considered that there were already rules for determining how a common cultivator became a noble.
“Really, Ling Qi. You may want to sit down and study such things for a time,” Gu Xiulan chipped in from her own seated position across the field. “Especially if you are going to be so stubborn about staying unwed,” she added teasingly.
Ling Qi flushed and shot the girl a glare. “Anyway, I was just wondering if you guys still had your tokens from Elder Zhou’s test.”
It was Han Jian’s turn to look bewildered. “I… suppose?” he replied questioningly. “I saw no reason to throw them away.”
Ling Qi grinned. It was probably a little bad to be glad that they hadn’t gained the benefits of the tokens already, but it did mean that she could help. “Well, you should all bring them along next time. Li Suyin and I managed to unlock the formation puzzles on them. They have some pretty good elixirs and pills hidden inside.”
Han Fang looked up at that, and Han Jian blinked once, then twice, before slapping his forehead. “... Of course they would do something like that. I’ve been so busy I didn’t even think of that.”
“Oh, do not trouble yourself, Jian,” Gu Xiulan piped up. “None of us have exactly been studious in regards to that kind of thing.”
“I can unlock them for you,” Ling Qi cut back in. “I owe you all that much. I know I’ve been absent lately, but I was hoping to make sure you know how grateful I am for your help.”
Han Jian shook his head, a slightly bitter chuckle escaping his lips. “I’ll thankfully accept your assistance then,” he said, looking back up with renewed confidence. “Sorry if I’ve been a little short myself. Things have been stressful since the end of the truce.”
She didn’t miss the way Fan Yu’s shoulders hunched at those words or the slight tightness in Han Fang’s expression. “It’s no trouble,” she assured them. She might not know the exact reasons for their stress, but she had an inkling. She was just glad her offer had been well received.
“I suppose not,” Han Jian mused. “In any case, thank you.”
Ling Qi unlocked their tokens at the next day’s training, feeling quite pleased at the gratitude from Han Jian and the others. Even Fan Yu simply remained silent and sullen rather than snappish. She felt like the atmosphere in the training field had somewhat normalized, despite the remaining undercurrent of tension. She didn’t really make any progress in regards to trying to insinuate herself into the group outside of training, but Han Jian did mention inviting her along if they went hunting in the forest. Apparently, he wanted to give everyone more actual combat experience.
For now, she would have to be satisfied with that and Gu Xiulan’s slightly nervous agreement to accompany her and Meizhen to the market at the end of the week.