It had only been a single day since the egg had hatched, and Ling Qi was already feeling harried. Her spirit’s constant hunger and desire for her attention consumed hours of her time. She had run out of grade one cores in short order and had been forced to put off research into his nature in order to get more.
There was a minor lucky break when she had left him in the garden atop the still warm kiln to retrieve some items from her room, only to return and find that he had gotten into the wood pile. It looked like he enjoyed gnawing on the spiritually infused wood almost as much as the cores given the smoldering end of the log she had found him under.
So she had the wood as a stopgap at least. It only took a bit of effort to break up one of the larger pieces and store the smaller sticks in her ring for his consumption. She scooped up the little snake turtle.
“What am I going to do with you?” Ling Qi murmured, resting her hand atop the little spirit’s shell. His eyes, both sets of them, stared up at her.
Hungry, safe, cold.
She could feel vague sensations from the odd spirit though their connection. There was nothing so coherent as words, or even images, just jumbled and primal sensation. While she already knew that she wouldn't be dealing with a mere animal, this was something more like a child. Her assumptions about the species of her spirit had been shattered, and now, she didn’t know what to do. She needed to research, but she could hardly leave her spirit alone.
The only person she might have trusted to watch over him was Bai Meizhen, but her friend was out right now, as she had often been since last week. Ling Qi did her best to ignore the pang of sadness she felt at that. This left bringing him along. She was wary of the idea; her instincts whispered that it was a bad idea to openly advertise her precious spirit to the Sect at large yet.
Recalling Elder Su’s lectures on the subject, she knew that it was a poor idea to dematerialize newborn spirits because their self and identity was not yet stable. This was the opposite of the problem at the higher end where the greatest of spirit beasts couldn't be dematerialized at all due to being too concrete in their self-identity.
The little tortoise let out chirping cry, startling her from her thoughts and bringing a chagrined smile to her lips. She wasn’t going to get anything done just standing here. She would just have to follow old habits and take a more circuitous approach to moving around for a little while. The serpent coiled atop his shell let out a plaintive hiss, and the feeling of hunger projected in her thoughts intensified.
“Be patient,” she chided, brushing her thumb along cool, black scales. “I need you to hold still now. I’m going to have to go out to get some things.” She paused and grimaced as she realized that he probably couldn’t understand her and that she still hadn’t given him a name. A few moments of contemplation solved at least one of those problems. She furrowed her brows and concentrating her thoughts on the tendril of vigorous, fiery qi tethering them together, doing her best to project her meaning: safety, silence, the promise of food, and of course, affection. Even if she hadn’t thought of a name yet, her spirit was still absolutely precious to her, an irreplaceable treasure.
That thought made her blink, even as the spirit in her arms let out another chirping cry and withdrew into his shell, huddling inside. The little serpent let out a soft hiss and puff of soot before it followed suit.
“That’s a good child,” Ling Qi sighed in relief, drawing on observations from her past to project a parental sort of tone. “Just hold on for a bit, okay?” She tried to give a feeling of confidence and assurance.
Ling Qi felt like she was onto something for a name, but she didn’t want to make a hasty choice. A light leap took her to the top of the wall around her home’s garden, and a second brought her to a narrow alley where she could disappear without being noticed.
Her first stop was the archive where she acquired a few bestiaries to search through. The second stop was a nice, isolated stream she had found in her quest to find a decent swimming and fishing spot for Meizhen. She still had the fishing gear she had prepared for the event it in her ring.
Grade one fish weren’t much smarter than normal ones. It seemed her best bet for acquiring cores cheaply and easily. Soon enough, she settled on the bank of the stream with a fishing rod in one hand and a book in the other.
Her spirit poked his head out of his shell when she stopped moving, and although he eyed the water warily, he soon trundled off of her lap to explore the nearby grass and underbrush. She kept an eye on him, but it seemed safe enough. This wasn’t a dangerous part of the mountain.
Her efforts to discover exactly what he was were both successful and not. She had thought she had seen something about snake-turtles before, and the bestiary she had borrowed quickly jogged her memory. She had a feeling that she had dismissed the idea subconsciously; after all, it seemed unreal that she had managed to acquire one of the four ‘legendary’ beasts. Dragons and phoenixes were associated with the Imperial house, and the great white tigers of the east had their own fame. She suspected the bond with tiger spirits was one reason why Han Jian’s family had the status it did.
The “xuanwu,” or serpent tortoises, were not referred to nearly as often in tales, mostly because she lived in the far south of the Empire. They were apparently native to the far north. Xuan Shi’s family might be associated with them given his family name and the fact that the bestiary noted that “Savage Seas” was the province where they were most common. As a constantly raining, storm-wracked archipelago of volcanic islands comprised mostly of sheer, wave-worn cliffs, the province didn’t sound very hospitable to her.
This was also where the bestiary grew less useful. Xuanwu were supposed to be creatures of earth and water with a few listed subspecies of mountain and heaven instead. There was nothing on fiery subtypes in the books she had taken from the archive.
Ling Qi pondered that even as she went through the rest of the books, pausing to clean the occasional catch and offer their cores to her unnamed spirit whenever he came trundling back to demand attention and pats. He gobbled up the cores and sticks of wood greedily, sometimes with a bit of squabbling between his two heads. By the time the sun was reaching its zenith, he had crawled into the embers of the campfire she had built to roast the rest of the fish she caught and fallen asleep.
The research hadn’t been fruitless, she supposed, even if much of the information she had gotten was useless for her particular variant of xuanwu. Still, she knew, for example, that although their heads might bicker and behave in separate ways, they weren’t really separate entities, just two sides of the same mind. She could probably use some of the notes on their care too.
Ling Qi stretched her arms over her head and arched her back, working out the stiffness of several hours spent sitting still. She would have to move on soon. She had quite a few other things to do today after all. She just had to figure out what she was going to do with her spirit before she could keep him dematerialized.
She heard a creak then and the rustling of leaves. A knife was in her hand in an instant as she jerked her head around to look at the treeline behind her. She blinked in surprise when Gu Xiulan landed lightly on the ground a half dozen meters downstream, giving her a peevish look. The hot-tempered girl had changed her look with her hair no longer in a single braid, but instead, a number of more elaborate smaller ones held in place with bright red clasps and pins. Her spirit had also grown, reaching Mid-Yellow.
“What in the world are you doing out here?” her friend asked irritably as she strode up, hands on her hips. “You left me waiting,” she added with a sniff and a toss of her hair. “You are lucky I bothered to look for you.”
Ling Qi grimaced sheepishly. She had agreed to meet Xiulan over lunch, hadn’t she? She hadn’t thought she was that late. “I’m sorry. I lost track of the time,” she said apologetically. “How did you find me though?” she asked. She hadn't told anyone where she was going.
Gu Xiulan huffed and dropped herself elegantly down next to Ling Qi, hands resting in the grass. Ling Qi caught sight of the other girl’s bare calves for an instant before Xiulan folded her legs to sit more properly. Ling Qi tried to feel interest or attraction at the sight but there was nothing.
“I am more than capable of tracking down a friend I know well by their qi,” Xiulan said haughtily. “What are you doing out here?” she repeated her question, wrinkling her nose as she studied Ling Qi’s face and glanced down at the small pile of fishbones sitting by the campfire.
Ling Qi could feel the other girl’s disapproval, and she glanced away, flushing, all too aware of the grease and soot spotting her lips and chin from her casual meal. She had meant to clean up before leaving. Ling Qi coughed into one hand awkwardly and dipped her other into the water, using the cool stream water to wipe her chin clean.
“I needed some small grade one cores, and it seemed wasteful to leave the rest,” she replied. “Since I needed to do some reading at the same time…” Ling Qi gestured to the books sitting in the grass beside her.
Gu Xiulan leaned forward to glance across the titles and raised an eyebrow, a smirk starting to grow on her lips. “Oh? Looking into spirit beasts? I-” Her increasingly smug expression froze as she narrowed her eyes, looking Ling Qi over more closely. “No, you already found one, didn’t you?”
Ling Qi cocked her head to the side curiously. “Is it that obvious?” she asked.
“Unless you have mastered a new fire art in the last day or so,” Xiulan said dryly. “Now that I think about it, I suppose it is rather obvious given the source of qi that appeared in your yard a month back. An egg - or did you discover some old ritual while hiding in the bookshelves at night?”
“The first one,” Ling Qi said happily. She reached into the embers of the campfire where her xuanwu was napping and scooped him up, unmindful of the still hot embers. He awoke at her touch, blinking up at her as his stubby little legs pawed at the air. The serpent part remained asleep and coiled on his back. “See? He just hatched. Isn’t he adorable?” She couldn’t help but gush a little as she presented her spirit to her friend, cradling him in her arms.
Gu Xiulan peered down at him with furrowed brows, expression going from surprise to an almost ugly expression of envy before smoothing over into resigned irritation. “... Hmph. I am never going to surpass you in anything of meaning, am I?”
Ling Qi blinked at the bitterness in her friend’s tone.
“Really. A xuanwu. Of course you would manage to find something like that.” The bitterness was gone by the time Gu Xiulan was finished speaking.
Ling Qi shrugged, not really sure what to say as she settled him on her lap. “I think I’m going to call him Zhengui,” she said instead. The name’s characters would be read as “Precious” - an adorable name for an adorable spirit - but amusingly, the sounds that comprised the name could also be pronounced as “True Tortoise,” a call back to when she met his “father,” or “Really Expensive,” which she hoped wasn’t prophetic. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to take care of him.” She glanced down in surprise as the little tortoise let out a chirp and clambered down off of her lap, his snake “tail” hissing irritably as the jostling woke it up.
Zhengui made another curious sound as he crossed the distance between Ling Qi and Gu Xiulan, letting out a plaintive squeak as he butted his tiny head against the other girl’s leg. “I suppose he is rather cute,” Gu Xiulan said ruefully. “That name may be a tad ill-fitting as he grows though,” she added as she reached down, running her fingers along his knobby shell. Ling Qi felt a flash of something like jealousy as he chirped happily and tried to climb into Xiulan’s lap. “Oh? Are you cold, little one? I suppose Ling Qi isn’t the warmest girl…” Some of her humor seemed to return as Zhengui nuzzled her hand.
“I can be plenty warm,” Ling Qi grumbled, giving her xuanwu a betrayed look as he snuggled into Xiulan’s lap and his serpent head swayed, following the sparks dancing on Xiulan’s fingers.
“Hardly, Ling Qi,” Gu Xiulan sniffed. She glanced to the side as if distracted by something. “Well, in any case, I suppose it is not as impressive now, but I did want to show you something,” she said after a moment’s quiet thought. “Ling Qi, meet Linhuo.” The air between them distorted, and actinic sparks erupted from the suddenly heated air. A marble-sized sphere of blue-white fire appeared and quickly swelled, taking on a vague humanoid shape some fifteen centimetres high. Snapping, sparking strands of electricity spread from its back into wings as it crackled like a campfire, somehow managing to convey a curiosity and cheerfulness with the sound.
Ling Qi studied the spirit with surprise as it fluttered closer, hovering a few inches from her face. Looking closer, she thought she could see the vague contours of eyes in the wisp of flame that made up its face. No, the spirit’s qi had a feminine tinge to it.
“Hello,” Ling Qi said curiously, raising a hand unconsciously, the winged flame landed in her upraised palm like a butterfly, tickling her palm. Linhuo was rather pretty given the colorful embers that made her form. “What is she, Gu Xiulan?”
“A Heaven Spark Fairy,” Gu Xiulan replied with a tinge of pride. “My Elder Sister was able to get me a pass to leave the Sect grounds for a day. We went north where a forest fire had been sparked. It was beautiful. Fairies like her are born when lightning sparks great fires, although they rarely outlive the blaze they are born in. Elder Sister Yanmei said that Linhuo would have great potential for future growth.”
“She’s cute,” Ling Qi mused as the fairy wandered across her palm before buzzing back into the air to hover over Zhengui, flitting from side to side curiously, only to jerk back as the tortoise tried to take a nibble at her. “Hey, no biting,” Ling Qi chided, reaching over to take her own spirit back, doing her best to convey disapproval even as she tucked him back into her own lap and ignored the little spirit’s plaintive squeak.
“She is quite a pretty little flame, is she not?” Gu Xiulan said with a laugh, seemingly mollified for the moment as her own spirit alit on her shoulder and let out an unhappy crackle. Linhuo gave off the impression of glaring at Zhengui. “In any case, shall we get going? I do believe you still owe me a meal.”
“Sure thing. Sorry for making you look for me, Gu Xiulan,” Ling Qi replied as she pushed herself to her feet. At least she could still talk to Xiulan normally. The other girl was obviously bothered by her good fortune, but it didn’t get in the way of their relationship. She was glad for that; she wasn’t sure what she would do otherwise.
It was nice to relax a bit and simply chat about idle things with the other girl over a meal, but soon enough, they parted ways with a promise to meet the next day. Ling Qi began to get back into her routine of cultivation, now with the addition of Zhengui either at her heels or in her arms. She continued to train with Meizhen as well, despite the awkward distance between them and her friend’s renewed aloofness.
It made her sad, but there wasn’t really anything she could do about it. Meditating at the vent remained peaceful - more silent really - given that Su Ling had secluded herself for her breakthrough attempt and Li Suyin was keeping odd hours. As a result, Ling Qi was often alone at the vent, but it didn’t worry her as it would have mere months ago. She was not an easy target anymore.