Ling Qi’s week only grew busier as time went on. She had managed to get Meizhen to agree to train with her, but she almost immediately regretted it. The other girl was absolutely pitiless in training, pushing her to the edge of her ability to keep improving her movement art. Ling Qi found herself coming up short, unable to fully sheath her body in dark-aligned qi as the next step demanded.
The fact that she had asked Meizhen to help her train her mental defenses just made the spars worse. Several times, Ling Qi had been nearly reduced to tears by Bai Meizhen’s powerful, fear-inducing techniques, cracking her newfound confidence.
Meizhen had somewhat awkwardly offered her salves to heal the wounds inflicted during their training sessions, but when Ling Qi found herself having a hard time trying not to flinch in the other girl’s presence, she couldn’t help but wonder if the training was really worth it. Meizhen’s stiff expression and posture in the aftermath seemed to display similar thoughts on her part.
Ling Qi’s cultivation at the vent was more relaxing, the simple steady feeling of progress as her spirit expanded to catch up with her physique. Her practice with Suyin also went well; the other girl had improved a great deal over the previous weeks and had now reached Late Gold. Su Ling, on the other hand, had withdrawn into the woods this week to attempt her breakthrough into Yellow Soul.
Despite Suyin’s focus on cultivation, it had been pretty trivial to convince Li Suyin to continue studying formations with her, which lead to them breaking off training a bit early to settle in for a study session at the pair’s cave home.
“Next week then?” Ling Qi asked casually as she found a seat in the cluttered cave, withdrawing the stack of copied notes she had made from some of the archive texts in preparation for this. “I’ve noticed that you stopped cultivating your spirit this week.”
Li Suyin blinked, pausing before nodding sheepishly and finding her own seat at the battered table the pair had found to furnish their cave. “Ah, yes. I’ve actually begun already. One more push should do it. I just wanted to master the next stage of my new art before I fully broke through.”
“I’m happy for you,” Ling Qi said brightly, examining her friend’s face. “What do you want to do after you’ve kicked that girl’s ass?”
Li Suyin looked briefly uncomfortable at the use of vulgar language but shrugged awkwardly. “I will keep trying to grow stronger I suppose,” she said with uncertainty. “That is what cultivators are meant to do, right?”
“Well, yeah,” Ling Qi said, paging through her scribbled copies to search for the ones which should have been on top; the pages had gotten jumbled up in her ring somehow. “What do you want to do though? Are you going to try for the end of year tournament? If you try, you can probably be in late second realm by the end of the year.”
“Ah, I don’t think so. I could never keep up with you, let alone the others at the top.” Li Suyin fidgeted with her sleeves. “What do you think I should do, Ling Qi?”
Ling Qi did her best not to frown. “I think you should do what makes you happy. Your cultivation should be about the path you want to walk,” she said, stressing her words. “Anything else is just going to hinder you. If you really still don’t know, you might not want to break through yet.”
“O-oh,” Li Suyin replied, sounding a little discouraged. “I suppose I will need to think on it then. Um - Anyway, which part did you want my help with?”
Ling Qi decided to let it lie for the moment and slid a page across the table to Li Suyin. “This part right here, talking about the linking and layering of characters. Can you try to explain more clearly?”
Li Suyin furrowed her brows, squinting at the markings on the paper. “Ah, just a moment. I can hardly make out the hanzi on this,” she murmured in consternation.
“Ah-ha, I don’t really have much practice with my calligraphy,” Ling Qi admitted with a slightly sheepish laugh. She probably could have done a decent job if she had slowed down, but she had been in a hurry too.
Li Suyin stilled, and Ling Qi started to worry that she had said something wrong.
“... You shouldn’t be practicing formations if you aren’t in practice with your brush.” Ling Qi blinked as the one-eyed girl actually scolded her. “It’s dangerous. Do you know what could happen if you mix up your strokes like this with formations characters?” Li Suyin asked, gesturing to some of the more ill-formed characters on the page.
“It won’t work?” Ling Qi responded, not entirely sure where the heat in her friend's voice had come from.
“It could explode, damage your channels with the qi backlash, or plenty of other bad things!” Li Suyin exclaimed. “It’s very important not to be lax about your brushwork. You could get hurt badly otherwise!”
Well, thus far, Ling Qi’s focus had been on simply identifying and possibly breaking formations, not actually creating them, barring the simple bit of utility work on her kiln.
“Sorry,” she said, holding up her hands defensively. “I’ll be more careful in the future.” She thought Li Suyin was blowing problems out of proportion, but it was nice to see her speaking up so Ling Qi kept those thoughts to herself. “So, the passage?”
Li Suyin continued to look at her sternly but then flushed, hunching her shoulders and looking down. “U-um, right. My apologies for getting heated. The meaning of this passage is quite simple. You just have to…”
Ling Qi rested her chin on her palm, following her friend’s more concise explanation. Formations were a bit of a pain, but she felt like it would be a good skill to have in the future. Li Suyin was pretty good at explaining things so they worked through her notes pretty easily over the course of the next few days.
She even managed to learn the basics of a few common anti theft arrays. The Alarm and Thieves’ Bane formations weren’t too useful for her personally, but they did give her an idea of what to expect if she ever found herself having to find her way past security formations, as well as give her a foundation to learn more useful formations.
In the end, Ling Qi felt that something more important had been accomplished. She had let Li Suyin take the lead and act as the teacher in their studies, and it seemed to have restored some of the girl’s self-confidence. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but when she left their last study session for the week, she felt like Li Suyin’s posture and body language had improved significantly.
“Ling Qi.” Li Suyin’s words shook her from her thoughts and caused her to look over her shoulder, pausing on her way out of Li Suyin and Su Ling’s shared abode. “I know I haven’t been… I have not been the best friend, and I apologize for that,” Li Suyin said, bowing her head.
Ling Qi gave her an incredulous look. “Li Suyin, you haven’t done anything wrong. If anything, I should be thanking you,” she said with slight frustration, turning to face the other girl.
“I have been very needy,” Li Suyin plowed on, more firmly than Ling Qi was used to, seemingly ignoring her interjection. “I am glad that you were willing to support me, but I - I do need to learn to stand on my own. So, I want you to promise that when I challenge that girl, you won’t interfere, even if I lose.”
Ling Qi scowled at her friend’s words but grudgingly nodded. “That’s - I can do that. I still want to be there in case she tries something dirty though.”
“That is fine,” Li Suyin replied, smiling slightly. “And when this is over, I would like to take the exam to join the Medicine Hall as an apprentice.”
What could she do but smile back? Ling Qi was still worried for her friend, but it seemed Li Suyin had found her path again.
With that weight no longer pressing down on her, Ling Qi found her cultivation of Eight Phase Ceremony proceeding smoothly. Soon, she found herself breathing in the celestial energies, letting it mingle with the qi in her dantian. It was difficult to process the more diffuse energy at first, but she could feel the qi cycling in and out of her core beginning to take on the more ephemeral qualities of lunar qi. If her Argent Foundation, which had firmly settled in her bones and muscles, was the ‘earth’ of her cultivation, then the light, misty qi formed by the cultivation of the Ceremony would be the sky, floating free above her denser qi.
There was something missing though, a part of the information in the jade slip that remained a cipher to her. Even that was progress though as before her mastery of this first phase, she hadn’t even been able to perceive that she was missing something. Ling Qi felt confident that she would get it with time.
Leaving aside the mystery of Eight Phase Ceremony, she still had other things that needed to be done. First, her egg needed tending. It had shifted a few times in the last week, the green veins pulsing as it drank in the heat. Once she had adjusted the fire for the egg, Cai’s mission beckoned.
Ling Qi had learned more about the attacker’s patterns by speaking to previous victims and those who had found them in the aftermath. It was weird having people treat her as if she had authority; she even recognized a handful as girls who had laughed behind their hands at her when she had been weaker, but now, they spoke with wary respect. Ling Qi had known things had changed, but it was her first time having the change put so obviously in front of her face..
It seemed the attacker only struck in the outermost two streets and on the road leading into the residential area. It also only struck after midnight and only if the target was alone. Everything else was as Cai said. The attacker struck from out of sight and took its victim down with a single paralyzing blow. The attacker was either using their fists or a blunt weapon because the victims had no cuts or puncture wounds. A couple of the ones she spoke to noted something else that Cai hadn’t mentioned though. They remembered hearing flute music before they blacked out.
There was little detail to be had further than that so Ling Qi began to plan to take the attacker down. They had struck three nights ago; it was about time for an ambush to happen again. She managed to convince a friend of a victim to play bait for her. She would shadow the girl as she arrived home ‘running late’ from training.
Ling Qi was confident that no one would see her. She had been good at sneaking before becoming a cultivator; now, she could practically become one with the shadows, flitting from one piece of cover to another with nary a sound as little more than a blur. She followed the girl she had asked to be her bait home from training, silent and out of sight, remaining tense and ready to move at a moment’s notice.
It was a dark night with the narrow sliver of the moon concealed by clouds, but that didn’t affect Ling Qi, who saw every rustle in the trees lining the path with perfect clarity. Still, it was nerve-wracking, trailing the girl’s slow trudge back toward her house, and Ling Qi nearly jumped out every time a bird took off from the trees.
It paid off in the end though. As the girl was approaching the top of the slope that would lead down into the residential area, Ling Qi spotted something amiss. A shift in the stone ridge on the right side of the path preceded a tall, dark figure seeming to melt out of the rock. It was shrouded from head to toe in dark clothes, including a face-concealing veil, but Ling Qi saw a long, dark braid of hair trailing behind the figure as it rushed the victim, flickering and vanishing from one step to the next.
Ling Qi was ready, and one of her knives flashed out from her hiding place in a streak of light. It struck home, stabbing into the attacker’s lower back and causing the figure to stumble and let out a feminine gasp of pain. The noise was enough for her bait to spin around, spot the figure, and let out an alarmed shriek before dashing off toward the houses.
She couldn’t blame the girl really, and frankly, she was glad to keep potential complications to a minimum. Ling Qi drew her flute and moved cautiously forward, only to pause as the figure did the same. The figure straightened up with an instrument in her hands and called forth a mist with the first notes played.
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes in consternation. The tune was light and reedy and worst of all, slightly off-key. It also wasn’t her Melody, and although the mist was thick and difficult to see through, it was easily engulfed by her own mist.
The figure seemed confused and hesitant as Diapason took hold, huddled in her own pocket of mist, and Ling Qi noted with some alarm that despite the knife in her back, the figure wasn’t bleeding. On instinct, she activated Argent Mirror, qi flooding into her eyes as she sought the truth of what lay before her. Argent Mirror’s Discerning Gaze seemed to have no effect though, aside from letting her see clearly though the enemy’s mist.
The figure turned and rushed away from her, clearly seeking escape, but the attempt was futile. Ling Qi watched as the attacker was turned around at the edge of the mist. This was… not impressive.
Ling Qi lowered her flute, and another knife flew from her hand, this time striking the back of the target’s knee, causing her to crumble to the ground. Even a weaker cultivator should have more tricks than this. She stalked forward through the mist until she stood over the huddled figure on the ground. Her target was tall and thin and was struggling to get up, but the movements seemed jerky and uneven. Ling Qi was beginning to get a bad feeling as she saw some sort of fine black dust leaking from the target’s wounds.
“Stop and surrender. Now,” Ling Qi commanded flatly, voice distorted oddly from the mist. “Or the next one takes out your other leg.”
Unsurprisingly, the figure did not stop, managing to shakily regain its feet in an attempt to run. Ling Qi made good on her promise, and the target crashed to the ground again, twitching weirdly. Ling Qi strode over and reached down, snatching away the girl’s - no, the thing’s - veil. It was as she expected given the thing’s fighting style. She looked down at her own face, locked in a grimace of pain, eyes blank and glassy.
The thing jerked, and its hand rose, crackling with electric qi, but Ling Qi batted the slow movement aside and drove her palm into her doppelganger’s throat. It twitched once more and let out a soft hissing sound before it crumbled. Literally. The facsimile of her appearance collapsed into a mound of black earth and dust, and laying half-buried in the center of the mound was an eerie little china doll with a cartoonish caricature of her face painted on its ceramic visage.
Ling Qi wasn’t happy at all. Someone had tried to set her up. She picked the thing up and put it in her storage ring, dusting her hands off as she stood up. It seemed she owed Cai Renxiang a visit.
The other girl’s appearance was as impeccable as ever despite the late hour that Ling Qi made her visit, but her expression grew stony as Ling Qi explained what had happened and showed her the doll. Ling Qi winced as one of its legs cracked and fell to shatter on the stone tiles of the path in Cai Renxiang’s front garden.
“Unacceptable,” the heiress’ voice cut through the quiet night air like a whip as she glared at the doll in Ling Qi’s hands. “It seems some foolish person intended to use my justice for their own ends.” Cai Renxiang sounded more than unhappy at that fact.
“I can’t say I’m happy to have my face stolen either,” Ling Qi said stiffly, feeling more than a little irritated herself. “I want to know who did this,” she added, deference forgotten.
Cai Renxiang looked up, expression stern and light glimmering in a corona behind her head. “As do I. You have my word that this will be investigated. Thoroughly. If I may?” she asked, gesturing to the doll. Ling Qi handed it over, wanting nothing to do with the creepy thing. “You have done well. I will have you informed when the culprit is found.”
Ling Qi nodded, accepting the small handful of glittering stones in payment before leaving the heiress’ home. She was certainly glad that she hadn’t ignored Cai’s request. While the doll hadn’t been able to escape her, she suspected that it was never intended for actual combat. It would have been all too easy for the doll to allow a victim to catch sight of its face by ‘accident’ with time, and then she would have been in a tight spot.
It seemed she would need to watch her back in coming weeks.