Ling Qi’s other primary concerns in the following days were much less exciting. A great deal of time was spent carefully browsing through the wares at the market for better and more effective pills and for proper equipment. She picked up a bow of middling quality to replace the training bows that kept burning out when she used her Falling Stars art and then turned her attention to obtaining a new flute.

Ling Qi dithered for some time on what to do with the remains of her mother’s flute. At first, she thought she might be best off simply repairing it and keeping it as a keepsake, something to use during idle times and otherwise leave unused.

She didn’t like that idea though. She had kept the flute intact through all her years in the street, and it had been both a temptation and a comfort. She had clung to it when she had lost everything else. It may have been her mother’s originally, but now, she couldn’t help but think of it as hers in a way that nothing else she owned really was. So no, she wouldn’t allow it to be set aside like that.

In the end, Ling Qi elected have the flute pieces incorporated into the new talisman she had commissioned. Although the crafter had been decidedly dubious at first, he seemed to understand after she explained that the fragments were from an heirloom. The work on something so delicate was going to take two weeks. In the interim, she would continue to use the flute Meizhen had obtained for her.

Her shopping trip left her fairly impoverished so she soon returned to hunting and training with Han Jian. It was irritating that Fan Yu was back and Gu Xiulan wasn’t, but she could put up with him in order to continue refining her archery and mastery of her arts. The spirit stones from selling cores and materials gained from their hunts also helped restore her funds.

Between her new bow and cultivation of her Falling Stars Art, she found it easier and easier to land her shots regardless of wind, weather, and even cover or difficult angles, and her refinement of the current that she imbued her arrows with to an impossibly sharp point allowed her arrows to punch through armor. She had polished the basics of the art and could now begin learning the more advanced techniques that it held.

Her training at the vent with her friends continued apace as well, although without the urgency and stress that had marked it in the last month or so. She still sparred with Li Suyin but less so now as the other girl refocused on her studies. Instead, it was Su Ling who more often practiced with her, working toward mastery of her chosen weapon. Su Ling seemed to have switched over to the saber from the sword at some point.

Similarly, Ling Qi continued to attend to the egg in her homemade kiln, fueling the flames within with an ever increasing amount of spiritually infused wood and periodically shoveling out the accumulated ash. The veins on the egg shone brightly now, and she saw it moving on occasion. It seemed like it might be ready to hatch soon.

Time to practice with Meizhen was much more scarce. Ling Qi had fully intended to get the girl to celebrate this week, but her friend was barely ever at the house. Elder Ying had apparently redoubled her training as Bai Meizhen worked toward a physical breakthrough to Bronze, and the few times she did see her, Bai Meizhen was deep in meditation, working on some earth technique that sent pulses of rippling liquid movement through the soil or stone around her.

Still, she managed to get some advice now and then as well as the occasional spar. Meizhen had some useful things to say about the use of environmental qi. Apparently, Meizhen’s family cultivation art did something similar, albeit with large bodies of water. That art was a bit less useful here in the mountains, but Meizhen could still receive some benefits when it rained. Despite her friend’s help, Ling Qi couldn’t quite get the circulation of qi right and didn’t manage to master the second phase of Eight Phase Ceremony yet.

While she was working on such things, she also continued her effort to hunt down Gu Xiulan. The fiery girl had squirreled herself away well though, and finding her proved difficult. Eventually, Ling Qi’s dogged perseverance and increasing willingness to interrogate passersby about the matter led her off the mountain. There had been rumors of a girl resembling Gu Xiulan and of bright fires lighting up the night as day.

The rumors led her out past the edges of the spirit wards and the most far flung farms to the rocky, more sparsely forested hills where the forest rose to become the mountains. Her search seemed fruitless for a time, but on an early morning, she saw steam billowing steadily up on the horizon and went to investigate. What she found was a great clearing in the trees surrounding a huge crack in the ground, hundreds of meters long and a half dozen wide. The interior was shrouded by the great clouds of steam it emitted and even dozens of meters away, she could feel the warmth of the ground through her shoes.

A figure was seated in a meditative position at the edge. For a moment, she thought she had found her friend, but as she drew closer and the figure gracefully stood and turned to face her, she found she was wrong.

The young woman regarding her coolly through the steam resembled Xiulan in a way. She had the same classical beauty and… impressive assets, but she was much taller, almost as tall as Ling Qi in fact. Her hair was dark red, almost black but not quite, and hung in loose ringlets down to her shoulders. She wore a shimmering golden gown, intricately cut and hanging low on the shoulder, much like Xiulan’s own preferred style of dress, but if anything, even more risque. The cut left her collarbone entirely bare, hinting at the curve of her chest. The young woman’s expression was closed off in a way that Gu Xiulan’s never was, cold where her friend was hot. The woman looked her over with an assessing gaze, her red painted lips thinning in displeasure.

“This is a private training ground. I must ask you to leave.” Her voice was soft and feminine, but there was a hard edge of command to it as if she was used to being obeyed. Ling Qi wasn’t surprised. Even leaving aside the intricate formation carved bands of gold gilt steel around her wrists and neck and the burning embers in her brown eyes, the woman looking down at her from the top of the hill was in the fourth realm.

Ling Qi clasped her hands together and bowed with some nervousness. “My apologies, Senior Sister.” It seemed a safe assumption that this was an Inner Sect Disciple, and she had an inkling of who the woman was already. “I was simply searching for my friend ,Gu Xiulan, and had thought this seemed a likely place.” She wasn’t lying; the qi of fire and metal blazed here, standing out like a beacon in this region. “I will leave you to your training.” Ling Qi wanted to stay and ask questions, but she wasn’t about to risk offending someone two realms above her pointlessly.

The young woman studied her with greater intent. Ling Qi felt something like pressure pressing down on her under the older woman’s gaze, but it was nowhere near enough to make her shudder or shiver anymore.

“Xiulan is here. There is no reason for you to continue searching.” The woman’s voice remained cool and even as she crossed her arms, emitting a faint jingling as her golden earrings and other ornaments shifted with her movement. “You are Ling Qi?” The woman’s expression had softened a tad, and her body language was no longer quite so unwelcoming.

Ling Qi almost let out a sigh of relief; her guess had been right. “I am,” she replied. “I… hope she has been well? She was wounded when I last saw her, and I have reason to believe she was… distressed,” Ling Qi added carefully.

The older girl, Gu Xiulan’s elder sister, inclined her head very slightly. “I am Gu Yanmei. I appreciate the concern for my younger sister’s well being,” she replied. “We are resolving certain family matters at the moment however. I must still ask that you leave. Distraction at this point would be costly. Gu Xiulan should complete this ordeal in another day, perhaps two at the outside.”

Ling Qi felt a bit of disappointment despite expecting the request. “I see. Thank you for your instruction, Senior Sister Yanmei. Might I request that you tell Gu Xiulan that I have been looking for her when she emerges?”

“It would be no trouble,” Gu Yanmei said, turning away from Ling Qi in clear dismissal to once again face the crevice.

Ling Qi turned away as well, stymied for the moment. She supposed it was an opportunity in a way. Although she had wanted to invite Gu Xiulan along for the fun of getting payback against Kang’s minions, figuring combat would cheer the girl up, she could use this time to earn Sect Points instead. Gu Xiulan might be able to get some Inner Sect tutoring for free, but Ling Qi did not have that advantage.

She needed to start accumulating Sect Points. The Sect’s mission board had many, many jobs, giving Ling Qi a multitude of options. Most, however, had fairly low payouts, and after that condor mission, Ling Qi knew that if she stuck with the safe and easy missions, she would just end up wasting a great deal of time that she could have spent cultivating.

With that in mind, she considered some of the more dangerous - and more lucrative - Sect missions. In the end, one in particular caught her eye. There was a mission to investigate the disappearances of several young laborers and a guardsman in the forest near the Sect. She would need to either rescue or return proof of their demise, and if possible, eliminate the threat or report on its nature.

However, it was a job dangerous enough to be recommended for a team of two disciples. With Gu Xiulan absent and not wanting to bother Meizhen with something so trivial, Ling Qi had few options. It occurred to her that Su Ling might be a good match with her tracking skills and greater familiarity with the wilderness than a city girl like her.

She’d just have to ask. If Su Ling agreed, Ling Qi would take her first truly dangerous mission.

A note from Yrsillar

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