Ling Qi had not forgotten her promise to Meizhen, so she needed to speak with Cui. Luckily, the serpent had taken to resting on the stones near the kiln she had built for her egg. The green veined egg rocked back and forth occasionally now and throbbed with qi, sucking in heat voraciously and requiring more work to keep the kiln burning. She thought it would likely hatch soon if she focused on feeding the kiln.
For now though, she could prod Cui for ideas and information on Meizhen’s likes while caring for the egg. The snake wasn’t too reticent about the information thankfully, although Cui did require some minor bribery in the form of a couple of beast cores from her hunting. The answers she got were a little sparse though, simply because it seemed that Meizhen did not often do things ‘for fun’.
However, Cui was still able to give her some ideas. Ling Qi would just have to find a reasonably sized lake. There had to be one around here somewhere, right?
Ling Qi refrained from speaking of her plans to Meizhen, who seemed to have little time for anything outside of cultivation. Meizhen was finishing her breakthrough to Bronze after all. Still, her friend was able to give her a few bits of useful advice before retreating into seclusion, which granted Ling Qi some insights as she mastered the second phase of the Eight Phase Ceremony.
As she cultivated and drank in the celestial qi, she was able to reflect on the moon and what it meant as an element of qi. The moon was, at its core, an element of change, one that meant little in and of itself but which altered other elements it was applied to, creating new variations of elemental qi. Each phase of the moon was thus different. The waning crescent, the phase which colored her version of the Ceremony, symbolized mystery and acts performed out of the light. It was cunning and whimsy, the desire to trick and steal, leaving one’s victims scratching their heads and cursing the shadows. It was darkness and wind tempered by guiding moonlight.
Ling Qi was not yet sure how deep she wished to delve into that phase of the moon. Research into the nature of the other phases would probably grant her further insight into the hole in the art she still found herself unable to illuminate. The hole felt different each time she contemplated it, as if awaiting a decision of hers. She had a feeling she would have a choice to make after mastering the third part of Eight Phase Ceremony.
Ling Qi soon found herself spending her evenings at the archives. She had the free time after all, now that she had mastered the second phase, and the shaman’s bags from her last Sect mission weren’t going to unlock themselves. LingQi hadn’t studied the locking characters stitched into the leather in depth, but they had given off a very dangerous feeling.
Of course, actually doing anything beyond practicing her calligraphy and memorizing lists of common formation characters proved difficult. She wasn’t really sure where to begin and often found herself staring in frustration at pages upon pages of theorycrafting above her understanding or simply rereading things she already knew. She felt an increasing desire to kick whatever disciple was in charge of organizing the archive.
As the night wore on, her gaze drifted toward the only other disciple present. Xuan Shi was in his normal spot, nose buried in a book. Her eyes drifted to the white band on his arm, contrasting starkly with his black robes. They were basically allies, right? Asking for a little advice wasn’t unreasonable. She didn’t precisely like it, but she supposed it couldn’t hurt. Besides, of the people remaining on the ‘council’, he was the only one she hadn’t really spoken to. She ignored Huang Da’s continued existence. As it should be.
After a moment, Ling Qi gathered the books she had been perusing under her arm and made her way over to the boy’s table. Glancing at the book he was reading, she paused. What kind of weird book was titled ‘Voyages of Yu Long: Mists of the Raven Isle’?
“Excuse me,” she spoke up politely as she reached his table. “May I ask you something?”
It took several seconds for Xuan Shi to look up from the thin book in his hands, which was a little annoying but gave her a moment to study him. The odd boy’s conical hat was tipped back so she was able to get a better look at his face. His hair was short and black but had a slight greenish tinge when the light hit it right. His features were as blocky and plain as she remembered, but his complexion was darkly tanned where it wasn’t outright scaled. The high collar of his robe still concealed the lower part of his face though.
“Miss Ling,” Xuan Shi responded with a slight nod. “What knowledge eludes you?”
“I was hoping you could point me to a good starting point for more practical formations knowledge,” she explained. “I have a fairly firm grasp on the basics at this point, but I am having a little trouble advancing.” Ling Qi was back to speaking formally again; this didn’t seem like a good time to be casual.
He stared at her for several uncomfortable seconds while she restrained herself from fidgeting. “What branch?” he asked shortly. “The paths of formation are not as the sands of the beach, but still, they are many. What area do you seek knowledge of?”
She blinked before glancing to the side in thought. What did she actually want out of her formations knowledge?
“... Security, I think. The techniques you need to protect places and things,” Ling Qi answered, both because it would be nice to protect her own things and because it would also make her own efforts at acquiring goods more fruitful. Ling Qi had been forced to stand down from stealing from a couple of targets when raiding Kang Zihao’s allies because she had noticed security she wasn’t sure she could deal with.
Xuan Shi made a thoughtful sound and reached out, tapping his finger against a particularly heavy tome on the shelf beside him. “Constructing defenses is often an arduous task, but if that is Miss Ling’s decision, your foundation materials lie here.”
She nodded, taking the heavy tome. A few months ago, she probably would have winced at the weight.
“... May I ask you one other thing?” she asked, despite her better judgement. At his raised eyebrow, she continued, “Why do you talk like that?”
He regarded her silently, seemingingly unoffended but not answering either. This time, she did fidget as the uncomfortable moment wore on. “Reputation and words are a power to themselves. Expectations are to be met and maintained, are they not?”
She stared back at him as he lowered his eyes back to his book and flipped a page, clearly dismissing her from his thoughts. So… he talked like that because he was expected to? Weird. She shook her head and turned away to head back to her table to study.
Xuan Shi was right. The book he had pointed out was a well laid out and relatively easy to understand resource, even if the lettering was tiny and the text dry. It would probably take her a few nights to get through it. Thankfully, with the ice somewhat broken, she was able to prod the odd boy into answering questions every so often, and she soon learned the Thieves Monument Formation, a type of security measure that inflicted paralysis on unauthorized lockpickers. Sometimes, she even understood his answers without puzzling over them for a quarter hour.
However, Xuan Shi was not the only one to frequent the archive, as Ling Qi found when she returned there the next evening to continue her studies. She sensed him first, like a cloud of angry static at the edge of her senses, but she was not going to leave just to avoid a potential enemy. There was no violence allowed in the archive anyway. As she entered the building, she caught sight of Ji Rong.
Between his wan skin, his prominent veins, and dark circles around his eyes, frankly, the scarred boy looked like a recently recovered plague victim. Ji Rong’s faintly starved appearance lent him a certain feral edge. Ling Qi felt a twinge of sympathy for him, but… they had chosen their sides. She didn’t allow herself to linger or look directly at him as she briskly walked past, heading for the formations section of the archive.
However, it seemed that Ji Rong wasn’t content to ignore her. “They let you keep your pass, huh? Figured you’d have had to give it to that snake witch,” he commented as she passed him, not raising his dull eyes from the art scroll in front of him.
“My friend wouldn’t just take something of mine,” Ling Qi replied coolly, even as she stopped walking. Old instincts told her to keep walking, to just ignore him and duck out of sight… but her new pride warred with that.
“Hmph. Guess someone like that wouldn’t even need it. Not like that stopped the turtle bastard,” Ji Rong drawled, finally looking up to meet her eyes. “So it’s just bein’ a lackey then? Guess I shoulda figured someone like you would have no pride.”
“And someone like you would always have too much,” she replied. They were both street children, that much was true, but… they were different. Ling Qi was a sneak and a pickpocket, but Ji Rong was every inch the street tough and thug. “It’s not my fault you were dumb enough to try and steal from Cai on the job.”
His sunken eyes lit with anger, and his expression twisted into a scowl. “I’m not that stupid,” he spat. “You think I don’t know that you don’t take outta the boss’s cut? I just took a prize for my own trouble. Cai got her ‘fine’.”
“I’m pretty sure she said not to do that,” Ling Qi shot back.
“Come off it. Have you ever met a guard who wasn’t on the take? Don’t pretend you haven’t done the same,” Ji Rong scoffed. “You, of all people, should know how all this crap works under the pretty words. Nothing’s any different.”
Ling Qi considered the council and her own role within it. It was true that she had little faith in it; Huang Da was a member after all. However… “That’s where we disagree, I guess.” She turned away. “I’m not going to live like I’m still in the gutter.”
“Idiot,” she heard him grumble under his breath as she walked away, too low for anyone without enhanced senses to hear. “And I felt bad for her when that creep latched on. Shouldn’t have wasted my time distracting him.”
Ling Qi almost stopped but thought better of it. The past was past, and whatever else could be said… She had enough on her plate worrying about herself and her friends.