Over the course of the next few days, she continued training hard.
Her efforts pushed her through to Mid Silver Physique, further strengthening and tempering her body, as well as clearing a meridian to channel qi through her arms. Between her increased physical ability, Su Ling’s advice, and the passing of the initial awkwardness, her hunts with Han Jian and his group began to bear fruit. They weren’t hunting anything difficult, mostly just the white deer native to the surrounding forest which provided the ingredients for many basic pills and elixirs. It was still nice to profit, if barely, even after splitting the proceeds with everyone. She was even able to get that rabbit she had promised Cui.
Su Ling came through for her as well, delivering a stack of fragrant, qi-infused, pre-cut wood for use as fuel and earth qi-infused clay to use for her hatching kiln. Lacking any safer place to do so, she set up the construction in the little garden that lay in the center of the home she shared with Meizhen.
She had had to spend a lot of time pouring over the books in the archive about building kilns, but she managed to construct something approximating the illustrations she was using for reference. It took a long day’s labor in her old disciple’s robes that left her covered in mud and clay up to her forearms, but in the end, it was complete, and she was able to light it. She had been nervous about actually putting the egg into the flame, but she had tested the egg’s safety with a smaller fire first, and the egg’s qi did seem to react favorably to the heat.
She even managed her first real formation, a simple string of characters inscribed around the base of the kiln to keep it heated for several hours after the fire had gone out. This should mean she would not need to constantly attend to the fire.
It was in the aftermath of setting up the kiln that she finally got the chance to talk to Bai Meizhen again. The other girl had been incredibly busy between her lessons with Elder Ying and preparations for breakthrough.
“You are filthy, Ling Qi, and tracking mud on the carpets.” Bai Meizhen’s first words to her this week were hardly welcoming, nor was her expression. “You will not come any further inside until you have cleaned yourself,” she added flatly, pointing back outside.
Ling Qi grinned sheepishly, still riding the high from seeing the egg’s qi flare up, drinking in the energy from the flames and wood like a hungry whirlpool. She was pretty filthy, she could admit, and her disciple’s gown hung heavily with the mud caking the lower hem. “I suppose I could go rinse off in the pond first.” She sighed. She really wanted a good soak in the bath.
“You will not use our garden pond to wash either,” Bai Meizhen continued. “There is a public well. Use it.”
Ling Qi raised a hand to brush through her hair but managed to stop herself before she smeared more dirt on herself. “I’m surprised you aren’t against me doing something so plebeian as washing my feet in public,” she said wryly. “Haven’t you and Gu Xiulan been trying to get me to act more ladylike?”
“A futile effort indeed,” Bai Meizhen said, not budging an inch. “However, your current state is your own fault. No one forced you to do such peasant work yourself. I would have lent you a few stones to hire a craftsperson if you needed it.”
“I wanted to do this myself,” Ling Qi said firmly. “This egg was entrusted to me, you know? I don’t want to risk some random guy from the crafting hall knowing what I’m doing, and the spirit deserves my personal attention and care.”
Her friend’s expression softened, and she thought she heard an approving murmur from Cui brushing her thoughts. “You will clean everything you touch, including the bath,” she said flatly, stepping aside. “And it will not be ‘later’.”
“Of course not,” Ling Qi said a bit nervously, remembering the one and only time she had left dirty dishes out in the kitchen. She paused as she began to move past her housemate though, recalling that she had wanted to ask Meizhen something. “Before I go though, do you want to try training together some time? I could use the practice against mental stuff from someone friendly now that I have Argent Mirror worked out. Ah - I’m not sure how it would help you though,” Ling Qi admitted. “I guess I could demonstrate my movement art for you. I remember you mentioning some interest awhile back.”
“I suppose I can consider it. Now that I think about it, I never had the chance to ask. Did your meeting with Lady Cai go well?” Bai Meizhen asked.
“It went… pretty well, I think?” Ling Qi responded with uncertainty. “She asked me some weird questions and requested that I take care of somebody breaking the rules at night. She seems fair, I guess. She even mentioned that she didn’t have any enmity toward you.”
“I see. Perhaps I shall have to speak with her about that spar after all,” Bai Meizhen mused. “I owe her that much, and I really should speak with her again.”
“Let me know if you do. I think I’d like to see that,” Ling Qi said. “Now, I’m pretty sure I should move before I drip any more.”
Bai Meizhen blinked and glanced down, wrinkling her nose at the sight of the mud on the floor. “...Yes, quite.”
Ling Qi passed her friend by, only briefly noting the thoughtful expression on her face as she headed off to clean up. She wasn’t done for the day after all. With the sun falling, she needed to continue cultivating the Eight Phase Ceremony.
Unfortunately, it remained slow going. Even perched on a high cliff under a clear sky, it was incredibly difficult to sense stellar and lunar qi and parse it from the other energies in the environment. Actually trying to absorb it was even more difficult; it was like trying to grasp a cloud.
She hadn’t entirely failed though. By the time the end of the week neared, she had felt a few precious, tiny drops of qi seeping into her dantian. With just a little more work, she would master the first phase and finally learn some portion of the last of her arts from the Moon.
However, earlier this week, she had taken down the notice for the ‘Moonfill’ mission and accepted it. She would need to start working her way up to the mountain peak if she wanted to make it in good time.
According to the instructions she had been given, there was an artificial tunnel that started two thirds of the way up the mountain that would allow her to reach the glade where she could gather nectar from the moon lily. Ling Qi was wary about using it. She had noticed a few other disciples lingering in her peripheral vision when she had taken down the notice and gotten it stamped, and she was pretty sure one of the lingering disciples had been with Kang Zihao at the meeting.
She could just choose to climb the mountain. It would be more difficult and tiring than the tunnel, but it would also be harder to track her through the winding cliffs and crevices. She would probably need to deal with spirit beasts though, and the higher up she went, the stronger they would be.
In the end, Ling Qi decided that avoiding the tunnel was a better choice. Climbing the mountain would likely be safer. Just because she had managed to avoid serious trouble in fights so far didn’t mean she should get cocky. She wouldn’t have any allies with her this time, and while her fight with the worm had gone well enough, Ling Qi also knew that her fellow cultivators would be prepared for her if they were choosing to attack.
Besides, she had been meaning to explore the mountain more, and she had all night to climb. It might even be refreshing to have some time to herself to clear her head. With that in mind, Ling Qi prepared herself for the trip ahead, first by borrowing a few harvesting tools from Su Ling and secondly, by rearranging the contents of her storage ring for more space.
She left her qi cards at home since she could never seem to decide what technique was worth putting in them, and they didn’t do her much good when empty. Likewise, her spirit stones and archive pass followed them out. Bai Meizhen would be home tonight so it was pretty unlikely that their home would be robbed. The chances of running into misfortune herself seemed higher.
That done, she dropped by the market to acquire a training bow and a quiver of arrows. While her knives were better for actual fights, her growing archery skills had proved invaluable for hunting, and she figured it couldn’t hurt. It wasn’t as if the bow weighed anything significant.
Feeling more prepared, Ling Qi set out as the colors of sunset began to paint the sky, circling the mountain to approach the peak from an entirely different angle than where the tunnel would lead.
Ling Qi often had trouble recognizing just how much she had changed. It was easy to forget the newfound power in her body when she was surrounded by peers, but here, alone with her thoughts, Ling Qi couldn’t help but think about it. It was perhaps the first time she had lightly jumped across a ten meter gap to proceed. She found herself scrambling up a sheer cliff without any trouble at all, her hands digging easily into cracks in the stone to haul herself up. As a mortal, she would expect to be aching and probably nursing cuts and torn fingernails, but now, she just had to dust her hands off before she continued up the mountain.
It was still tiring, but even as she entered her second hour of climbing, she felt only a slight fatigue, easily dispelled by a few minutes rest. Even periodically cycling her qi to activate trackless escape to break her trail did not tire her much.
Things began to grow more difficult as she ascended. The wind around her took on a frigid chill, and she left the last scraggly bits of plant life behind. The cliffs grew higher and sheerer, and yet, the peak still lay ahead of her. She was no longer alone; dark shapes flapped in the blackening sky above her, only to be scattered by well aimed shots from her bow when they grew too close or bold. It got her a handful of low grade beast cores too.
Soon, the mountain slope grew slippery with ice and snow, slowing her even further, and winds whipped violently around her as it began to snow. She found herself forging upward, her vision obscured by falling sheets of white. The sudden fierceness of it all surprised her. For so long as she had been in the sect, the weather had been calm; the worst weather she had previously seen on the mountain had been a few light rain showers.
Still, she didn’t worry too much. Even with snow crusting her hair and soaking her dress, she only felt mildly uncomfortable. The poor light didn’t affect her either, only the opacity of the driving snow. She continued her progress, careful not to slip.
As Ling Qi trudged and climbed on, she began to get a suspicious prickling sensation on the back of her neck. Something was wrong about this sudden snowstorm. It took more time to figure out just exactly what was happening. She was being guided, an unnatural tint of qi in the wind that kicked up now and then, forcing her to choose different paths.
Likewise, the ice slicks seemed to be growing in frequency and not always in positions that made sense. Ling Qi was becoming increasingly sure that someone was messing with her. This suspicion was only confirmed when she caught the sound of someone laughing under the howling of the wind and caught a shadow out of the corner of her eye on a cliff above.
Ling Qi didn’t waste any time responding appropriately.
A white flash flew from her sleeve, blending with the falling snow as the dagger streaked toward the shadow on the cliff above her. Ling Qi’s eyes narrowed as she summoned her flute to her hand, preparing to dance backward and throw up her mist, only to come up short as the figure gave a high-pitched yelp of surprise. As the knife struck, a dazzling burst of icy blue-white qi appeared… right before the figure tumbled from the ledge it had been on, flailing and landing headfirst in a snowbank.
“Owie, owie,” the short, slight figure moaned, further throwing her off at its childish voice. She didn’t allow her guard to go down entirely. Even if she couldn’t quite bring herself to attack what she could now clearly see looked like a small child of eight or nine years, the ‘child’ was a second realm like her.
The ‘little girl’ pouted as she pulled herself out of the snow, snowflakes seeming to avoid her entirely. She had short, messy silver hair and unsettling white eyes, devoid of iris or pupil; her unnaturally pale skin was nearly blue in places. She wore a dark blue child’s dress that came down to her knees but was entirely barefoot.
“Such a mean big sister! You threw a knife at Hanyi!” The child stamped her foot angrily in the snow, pointing an accusing finger at Ling Qi.
Ling Qi glared right back, despite the slightly foolish way it made her feel despite herself. This child was pretty clearly a spirit given the way she ignored the weather around her entirely.
“If you don’t want to be attacked, you shouldn’t lurk around dangerous paths,” Ling Qi said unapologetically. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing. I can feel your qi in the wind and the ice.” Ling Qi couldn’t read qi so accurately yet, but her gut told her she was right.
‘Hanyi’ scowled, crossing her arms. “I was just playing,” she said petulantly. “Mama said to go play in the storm ‘cause she had things to do so I did! This place belongs to Mama anyway. Mean and ugly humans shouldn’t be here!” She stamped her foot again, kicking up a burst of icy wind.
Ling Qi could not help but feel a spike of irritation at the childish insults, but she wasn’t foolish enough to snap back. She didn’t think the spirit was lying about having a parent or that this area was its territory.
“Well, your mother should mark her property then,” Ling Qi said, not backing down. “I just need to pass through here.” Ling Qi wished she could share whatever effect was letting the spirit ignore the weather to converse clearly; her eyes stung from the driving snow. Still, she had to be the mature one here. “... I’m sorry for attacking you, but I do need to be on my way. Can you please stop interfering?”
“No!” Ling Qi’s eye twitched at the defiant reply. “Even if Big Sister has good eyes, I won’t make it easy. You’ll pay for being mean!” the child spirit yelled.
Ling Qi grit her teeth, considering whether she should just knock the obnoxious little spirit out. That ran the risk of drawing the ire of her ‘Mother’ though, and Ling Qi didn’t know how strong that spirit would be.
“I said that I was sorry,” she said with all the patience that she could muster. “What can I do to make it up to you?” Maybe Ling Qi could bribe the spirit with sweets or something; she had packed some food for the trip. Or maybe the cores would work better?
Hanyi’s angry expression faded, and her round face screwed up in thought. “Since you ruined my first game, you gotta play a different one with me!” she decided, seemingly pleased with her conclusion. “I wanna play tag! If you can catch me twice, I’ll let you go through mama’s yard.”
Ling Qi did her best to disguise her disgruntlement. It was already fairly late, and if she wanted to fulfill the mission, she needed to be at the glade at midnight. Despite Hanyi’s game, Ling Qi was still roughly aware of where she was on the mountain and how far she had to go. Would she make it in time if she stopped to play a game with this annoying child?
Ling Qi sighed. She had a feeling the spirit would become a much bigger problem if ignored or snubbed; she still had several hours before the collection deadline would pass so it seemed like playing along was her best option. Ling Qi briefly considered countering Hanyi’s offer with one of her own, such as to play the little spirit some songs instead, but decided that Hanyi probably wouldn’t agree.
That didn’t mean she would just go off blindly though. While spirits weren’t always malicious, they were still often tricky, and she expected that in this case, her opponent was probably fickle too.
“I’ll play with you,” Ling Qi agreed. “But I want to know the rules first. I’m going to be mad if I catch you and you call it cheating or something.”
Hanyi crossed her arms and pouted. “It’s tag! I run away and you chase me, silly human. Are you dumb too?”
Ling restrained her urge to glare at the child. “So you won’t complain if I use arts?” she asked in a sickly-sweet voice. “I won’t go easy on you just because you’re small.”
“You’d better use them or you’ll never catch me on those skinny crane legs, big sister.” The snow child stuck out her tongue rudely. “Are you gonna play or just complain all night?”
Ling Qi’s eye twitched, and she dashed forward at full speed, drawing on the dark around her. She felt gratified as the spirit’s milky white eyes widened in surprise as she crossed the distance between them in an eyeblink. Ling Qi was less enthused when her hands closed on the girl’s shoulders and went right through, Hanyi’s figure exploding in a shower of snow, leaving her holding nothing but quickly melting slush.
“Haha! This will be fun! Big Sister is fast!” She heard the girl’s childish, mocking laughter from atop the ridge and looked up in time to see a shadow vanishing into the snowstorm. Ling Qi leaped upward, landing on the ridge, only to feel the the hidden ice slick beneath the snow at the last moment. She kept herself from falling off the cliff, but she couldn’t avoid tumbling through the snow, leaving her already damp dress soaked.
... This was going to be a long game.