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Ling Qi had not been focusing as heavily on cultivation in the past few weeks, but she felt that it was time for that to change, at least temporarily. As much as she was growing quickly, there was still so much she needed to do.

To that end, she began her week by heading to the archive. This week, she wanted to obtain a dedicated offensive art. Zephyr’s Breath was good, especially when she was with Han Jian and the others, but she wanted something useful for when she was on her own, something that she could use to end battles more quickly. She wouldn’t always have the time to dance around an enemy while they were worn down by a thousand cuts after all.

Ling Qi found several interesting possibilities during her search. The Falling Stars and Ashen Shadow arts were both great for different fighting styles, and she spent quite a while reviewing the arts and agonizing over which of them she wanted to learn. She ended up spending several hours longer in the archive than she intended actually, paralyzed by indecision as she was.

It turned out for the best as she turned up a lucky find while researching elements and combat tactics to help her make her decision. Buried behind a pile of scrolls on archery theory, she found a small, dusty clay container still sealed by wax. Inside was a single, dull white pill with a very strong medicinal scent. Hurriedly, she tucked it into her storage ring for later identification.

In the end, she chose the Falling Stars art. Ling Qi felt that she was rapidly getting better with a bow, and having an art to actually make use of the weapon could only improve her hunting ability, which was her best way of making money at the moment. She thought she might come back for the other art later, but for now, she had to focus on learning her new art, or rather, opening the meridians needed for it and Sable Crescent Step.

It turned out her fortune had been particularly good. The dull white pill she had found, although on the verge of expiration, greatly aided in the opening of new meridians. The Medicine Hall disciple said it was still safe to use for a few more weeks as the wax seal she had broken had kept it preserved.

In any case, she found herself rapidly clearing a new pair of meridians in the spine and arm with the medicinally-induced surge. Her body once again tingled with energy and drive from the quantity of cultivation drugs she had taken.

Sadly, with everything else she needed to do, she didn’t have time to train the art itself despite her desire to get in more practice with her archery. Ling Qi was able to continue improving her mundane skills with simple practice though.

Her burgeoning archery skills were a great help when she joined Han Jian and the others for their weekly hunt; she still wasn’t good enough to outright kill the beasts they hunted with a single shot, but she was more than able to slow or cripple them for her companions to finish. It was enjoyable, sighting a target from dozens of meters away and allowing all but her target and her arrow to fade from her mind. It was almost like meditation.

That feeling had only grown when she punched an arrow through the shoulder of a Black Steel Bear, causing the powerful grade two beast to stumble and crash to the ground rather than bowl over Fan Yu and Han Jian. It hadn’t put the beast down, but it had given her friends the opportunity they needed to finish the fight.

Perhaps it was because of her own good mood that she noticed that Gu Xiulan seemed withdrawn compared to her usual boisterous and outgoing self. So after parting ways with the boys, she broached the subject on the way back home.

“Did you want to go to the springs together?” Ling Qi asked as she fell in beside Gu Xiulan. “It’s been some time since we’ve had an opportunity to relax together.”

The shorter girl cocked her head to the side slightly, giving Ling Qi an appraising look. “Oh? I had thought you would be busy this week. You are practically giving off medicinal fumes, you know,” she teased.

Ling Qi surreptitiously glanced down at herself, just to make sure the other girl wasn’t being literal. “Is it really that obvious?” she asked. “I didn’t think I was behaving strangely.”

Gu Xiulan laughed into her sleeve at Ling Qi’s reaction. “No, no. Worry not. You have not had another little episode like the days after Elder Zhou’s test. You are running rather warm though,” she said lightly. Ling Qi shot her a confused look, and Gu Xiulan smirked, showing a bit of her usual arrogant pride. “You are not the only one who has been mastering new arts. Father sent me instruction for several family techniques inside my new storage ring.”

“Oh,” Ling Qi said. She supposed it made sense that a perception art of the Gu clan would involve some kind of heat-based sensing. “I’m glad you’re progressing well then,” she offered, noting the minute twitch of displeasure in the other girl’s expression. “I am training hard this week, but that’s no excuse to ignore other people entirely. I’d like to think I’m getting better at that,” she added self-deprecatingly, offering the other girl a lopsided smile.

Gu Xiulan shook her head, a slightly bitter twist on her lips. “I suppose not. You may just become civilized yet,” she said airily. “If only others could remember the same,” she grumbled under her breath, looking to the path ahead.

Ling Qi gave her friend a sidelong look as she walked beside her, gown fluttering around her legs. She really did need to consider getting some wrappings or something. It was hard to remember to control the thing at all times. That, too, was training, she supposed.

“Has something been bothering you lately?” Ling Qi asked bluntly. “It must be tricky if you haven’t confronted it head-on yet.”

The fiery girl shot her a heated look, which Ling Qi met with a calm and cool one of her own. They paused in their walk before Gu Xiulan snorted in a distinctly unladylike fashion and looked away.

“What happened to the Ling Qi who flinched at the first sign of my displeasure?” Gu Xiulan wondered. “Perfectly happy to follow along in my shadow and allow me the lead in our interactions.”

Ling Qi narrowed her eyes, irritated at the other girl’s insinuations. “Well, I got stronger,” she said flatly. “As for the second, she never existed. I might have found you intimidating at first, but I’d like to think we’re past that. I just want to know what is bothering you.”

“I suppose we are,” the haughty girl responded, crossing her arms under her chest as she looked up at Ling Qi. “I had imagined I might hire you on as a handmaiden, you know, in the aftermath of the test. How foolish that notion seems now.” A slight wave of heat around her betrayed Gu Xiulan’s irritation. “I am trapped on the cusp of breaking through to Silver,” she admitted, anger coloring her tone as she looked away from Ling Qi. “It is infuriating to see you overtake me further every day. Is that what you wished me to say?”

“I didn’t wish for anything,” Ling Qi said simply, giving the other girl a hard look. “We’re friends, right? Gu Xiulan, you said you had my back that first day the truce ended, and I have yours, but I’m not going to slow down. Not for anyone. I’d think you would approve of that.”

“I do,” the girl responded grudgingly. “I might have thought you a potential servant at first, but I cannot deny that you are a peer now. I apologize. It seems my composure is more frayed than I thought.”

“It’s fine,” Ling Qi dismissed. “I don’t doubt that you’ll be able to manage soon.” She thought it best not to mention that Han Fang had broken through to Yellow Soul, evening out his cultivation, if her new sense for qi was correct. “Do you want to soak for a bit then and maybe get something to eat? You may just need some time to relax and reflect to clear things up.”

“Perhaps,” Gu Xiulan allowed. “In fact, yes, that may be wise. Taking my mind off things for an afternoon may be what I need to center myself properly.”

Ling Qi nodded in satisfaction. “So that aside, how have things been with you and the others? We don’t have much time to chat when we’re hunting.”

Gu Xiulan frowned. “It has been… well enough, I suppose,” she said. “I do wish Han Jian would stop avoiding me. It is becoming irksome.”

Ling Qi gave her a curious look as she caught up. “He’s been avoiding you? I didn’t notice anything weird during training.”

“Of course not. I would not so undermine his authority as to question him on personal matters during such exercises,” Gu Xiulan said dismissively, even as her gaze drifted to the ground. “He has been avoiding me outside of them though, and it is not merely due to a busy cultivation schedule. I know it.”

Ling Qi made a sound of agreement as she walked beside her friend and allowed the girl to vent. It seemed that Gu Xiulan was feeling ignored by Han Jian, and she got hints that there were other pressures involved as well. Her comments on Fan Yu had a particular edge to them that hadn’t been there before, and she seemed reluctant to speak further on the sister in Inner Sect.

Ling Qi simply went with the flow, offering an attentive ear and occasionally interjecting her own grumbles, such as her creeping concern at how quiet Huang Da was being and her worries over the mission Cai had asked her to perform. In the end though, their chat turned to lighter things. Gu Xiulan complimented her new talisman and expressed relief that Ling Qi had finally ditched the ‘tacky’ bracers, and Ling Qi recounted a slightly altered story of her game of tag with the spirit Hanyi.

Once they were finished with their bath, the two girls strolled down to the market to continue chatting. They ended up purchasing some kind of flavored powdered ice served in a bowl that had intrigued Xiulan. It was as they were sitting together at one of the tables set up near the market stalls that the subject turned to something more serious.

“We need to make more of a name for ourselves, I think,” Gu Xiulan declared haughtily, only to ruin the moment as she shivered, closing her eyes and scrunching her nose as she took a slightly too large bite of her odd, icy treat.

Ling Qi was rather more careful, taking only a small spoonful of the dark blue powder. The treat satisfied her sweet tooth quite well, but it wasn’t something to eat quickly.

“What do you mean?” Ling Qi inquired after the icy flakes had melted on her tongue. “We’re already doing pretty good, aren’t we?” The number of second stage cultivators was increasing in a steady trickle by the week, but they were still among the first.

“Pretty good is hardly good enough,” Gu Xiulan said, prodding her own red dyed ice with her spoon, seemingly hesitant to take another bite. “No, we both deserve more glory and renown. What do you say - once I complete my breakthrough, shall we find some older Outer Disciples to challenge?” she asked, taking the plunge and furrowing her brows as she took another bite.

Ling Qi’s eyebrows climbed high. “What in the world makes you think that is a good idea?” she asked incredulously.

“Well, there is hardly anyone in our year to challenge, is there?” Xiulan explained haughtily, waving her spoon for emphasis. “Crushing some of those who have recently straggled into the second realm will hardly be looked upon well, and I am not quite proud enough to consider challenging the Sun princess or the Cai heiress. I suppose we could make an attempt on that Kang fellow…”

“Alright, granted,” Ling Qi hurried on, not wanting the other girl to talk herself into thinking that challenging Kang Zihao directly was a good idea. “Why do that at all though?”

“I need a proper challenge. My Sister said as much,” Gu Xiulan replied. “Hunting beasts is all well and good, but it is not the same as fighting a fellow cultivator. I think that is why I have slowed down of late. Nothing has brought my blood to boil since that first day after the truce ended.”

Ling Qi was silent as she eyed the other girl continuing to daintily eat her powdered ice. “... Won’t older disciples be even stronger than the top of our year though?”

“Of course not,” Gu Xiulan said dismissively. “Some certainly, but not all. I am certain I could find us an appropriate challenge or two, and once we defeat a few, the challenges will come to us, and we can stand in our own glory rather than playing second.”

Ling Qi wasn’t sure that Gu Xiulan’s plan was a good idea, but she didn’t reject the idea outright. She still made an effort to steer Xiulan back to safer topics for the remainder of their meal though.

The two girls parted ways around sunset with Ling Qi heading off to cultivate Eight Phase Ceremony on the high cliffs and Gu Xiulan heading home to begin preparations for her next breakthrough attempt.

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