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The unopened letter resting on the desk in her room stirred several conflicting emotions in Ling Qi as she stared down at it. Guilt because she had completely forgotten about the burgeoning correspondence with her mother in the rush of events, faint hopefulness that she would be able to reconnect with her, and regret when she recalled how flippant she had been in her own letter. Would this just be a cursory response from a woman who probably couldn’t fathom Ling Qi’s current circumstances?

Ling Qi sighed and broke the plain wax seal on the letter. She would just have to read it and find out.

Ling Qi,

I am glad to know you are well. I do not deserve the consideration you have given me, but I cannot in good conscience refuse. Let us not speak of past mistakes. If you were a poor daughter, it is only because I was a poor mother. I am only glad that you still live and have done so well for yourself. You have done better on your own than I could have ever hoped.

To answer your questions… the city has been quiet of late with the recent passing of inspections. There are few troublemakers about. I am certain things will return to normal in a matter of months, but for now, the peace is kept.

Your other questions are more difficult to answer. I suppose you are old enough now that there is little need to honey my words, but… no tincture is perfect in function. You have a younger sister, if one only half related by blood. Given my age and the circumstances, my employment ended shortly after the pregnancy became obvious.

Please do not exert yourself further for us though. I say this not as a plea for more as your gifts are already far in excess of what I deserve or need. Biyu, your half sister, is as healthy and well as can be expected.

Returning to your circumstances, you say you are among the best of the Outer Disciples? I am pleased for you. I always knew you could reach high with focus and effort, although it seems my chosen methods to push you were poor in effect.

I cannot begin to understand the trials of immortals, of course, but are you well? Have you found friends? You always had trouble getting along with other children. Has anyone troubled you? The great families can be dogged and unrelenting at times and cruel to others.

I have no right to ask, but I would like to know more of how you now live.

With love,

Ling Qingge

Ling Qi reread the letter a few times before leaning back in her seat, idly reaching down to pat Zhengui’s shell as he stirred in her lap, letting out a questioning squeak as he peered up at her.

A half sister, huh. She didn’t know how to feel about that. She was glad her mother was well though and glad that her mother was interested in her life. She still wasn’t really sure how to handle that though.

For now, Zhengui needed his morning meal, which meant a trip to the market. He didn’t particularly like the fish cores so she would have to see if she could trade for something more palatable. It would be a stopgap until she could do some hunting tonight on the way to a Sect job.

She would still need to hurry though. She had chosen a week’s worth of lessons with Elder Ying as her reward from the mission with the barbarian shaman, and her first lesson was today.

Once she had gotten to the market and traded a few fish cores in for an assortment of other minor cores at a small loss; Ling Qi began the climb up to the pavilion where the Elder’s note had indicated that they would meet at. She was nervous about exposing Zhengui to the Elders’ attention but she strongly doubted they were unaware of him. Elder Ying was unlikely to be unaware of what happened within her own trial.

The pavilion, a sturdy stone construction made for meetings and meditation, was much like the others that dotted the mountain. It was also deserted so after peering around nervously, Ling Qi sat down on one of the plain wooden seats and set Zhengui down on the table, fishing out a couple of cores to feed him with. She couldn’t help but smile a bit at the enthusiastic sounds both of his heads made as she offered the little spheres for them to eat out of her hand. She had to gently deny the serpentine head when it tried to steal from the other. The little smoke breathing serpent was the more gluttonous of the two heads.

Should she consider a way to more easily refer to the two heads? The two heads were the same being according to all the information she had, but it was hard to think of it that way when they squabbled with each other. Maybe she could split the name between them? Zhen for the serpent and Gui for the tortoise head?

Her smile dimmed as she remembered that Meizhen was still avoiding her. The other girl wasn’t unfriendly when they did see each other, so much as distant and closed off like she had been in the beginning of the year. Meizhen wasn’t comfortable around Ling Qi anymore. Ling Qi did not notice her hands clenching into fists until Zhengui let out a plaintive sound and nudged his head against her hand.

His concern was a simple, unformed thing, but she appreciated it all the same, patting him on his rocky shell in thanks. The little serpent twined affectionately through her fingers, rubbing his head against her thumb.

“At least I have you, no matter what. Right, Zhengui?” she mused. People could be so difficult to deal with sometimes.

She blinked then as a pulse of qi washed over her, earthy and rich. A moment later, the matronly figure of Elder Ying materialized before her, seemingly arriving from nowhere. Elder Ying’s brown eyes regarded her warmly from her lined face.

“Good morning, Disciple Ling,” she said kindly. “Are you prepared to begin?”

Ling Qi hastily stood and bowed, scooping Zhengui up. She felt a spike of nervousness as she saw the Elder examining him, but the old woman’s eyes quickly rose back to her face. “Of course, Elder Ying, I do not want to waste your valuable time.”

“I am certain that you do not,” Elder Ying replied, the corner of her lips quirking upward in a slightly amused smile. “But you have a question. Please ask it, and feel free to continue doing so. A student can hardly learn by leashing their curiosity.”

Ling Qi hesitated. Were her thoughts really so transparent? She supposed they must be to an Elder.

“I… just want to be sure that there are no concerns about my spirit,” she admitted carefully.

“Understandable,” Elder Ying said. “But your worry is unfounded. His parents may have been the companions of a dangerous criminal, but spirits are not so chained by such things. Be at ease.” Ling Qi was relieved at the Elder’s calm words, even as she was uncomfortable at the powerful woman’s gaze.

“I see. Thank you for your wisdom, Elder Ying,” Ling Qi replied, her unconscious grip on the spirit in her arms loosening.

“It is no trouble, young lady,” the older woman said dismissively. “Take my hand if you would,” she continued warmly. “Today will largely consist of lecture and theory so we will relocate to my garden, a much better venue than this dreary place.”

Despite herself, Ling Qi relaxed in the face of the Elder’s friendly demeanor and stepped forward to take her hand. Ling Qi blinked, and they no longer stood in the pavilion. She wobbled on her feet as if she had come to a sudden stop from a run then took in her new surroundings.

Ling Qi now stood on a small, stone tiled square in the center of a well-organized garden. Small tiled footpaths lead away in each cardinal direction. She could see dozens of different types of flowers and at least three types of fruit trees in her immediate surroundings arranged in orderly and artful patterns. A light breeze carried the mingled scents of the garden to Ling Qi, and that, along with the soothing flow of the qi in her immediate vicinity, filled her with a certain serenity, her stress and worry fading.

“It is lovely, is it not?” Elder Ying said warmly, releasing her hand. “It is quite a lot of work to maintain, but I find the effort to be worth it. Go ahead and take a seat on the bench, young lady.”

“It is beautiful,” Ling Qi agreed, turning her head to take in more of the garden. “Do you really maintain all of this yourself?” she blurted out, immediately feeling foolish. The woman was an Elder; of course she could take care of even a garden this large entirely on her own.

“I manage with a little assistance,” the old woman chuckled. “As you have discovered for yourself, a cultivator is hardly ever alone, are they?” Ling Qi flushed in embarrassment, glancing down at Zhengui. Both of his heads were peering around in wonder… and hunger. She resolved to keep a close eye on him. He would probably try to take a bite out of anything he could reach. “But I do enjoy doing some of the work by hand. It is a good way to remain connected to the world,” Elder Ying mused. “Now, I believe you wished to learn about the subject of spirit beasts?”

“That was part of my request, Elder Ying,” Ling Qi replied politely, carefully keeping Zhengui from scrambling out of her arms as she took a seat on the simple stone bench indicated to her. “I want to know how to care for Zhengui properly.”

“An admirable goal,” the Elder said warmly. “I will not speak too much about things such as diet and hygiene; the books you have been studying should be sufficient for that task,” Elder Ying continued thoughtfully. “Let us speak on less mundane matters. Tell me, Disciple Ling, what is the difference between a spirit and a human?”

Ling Qi frowned in thought, thinking back to her lessons with Elder Su. “Humans have more flexible cultivation systems. We have more channels and more robust dantians capable of greater expansion. Our bodies are full of impurities though, and it is more difficult for us to gain access to our qi. Most humans have so much impurity in their body that it is effectively impossible for them to ever awaken to the Path of Cultivation.”

“You have listened to Junior Sister Su’s lectures well,” the smiling woman praised, sounding amused. “But do you know what that really means? What exactly are the impurities you speak of? And why do they trouble humans but not beasts or pure spirits?”

“That… did not come up,” Ling Qi admitted. “My apologies, Elder Ying. I do not know.” She was pretty sure the gunk she had woken up covered in after breaking through was an example of impurity, but it wasn’t as if she had ever studied it.

“That is fine,” Elder Ying said, folding her arms over her stomach as her gaze drifted back to her garden. “Some of the impurity is mundane: poorly healed tissue, foul or useless things in the food and drink we consume, and things absorbed from our environment. This type of impurity affects even spirit beasts. Humans are born with a great deal of impurity however. This is due to our origin, which differs from other life in the world. Do you know the tales of the Nameless?”

Ling Qi furrowed her brows, idly sending soothing thoughts to the excitable Zhengui; she materialized a stick of fragrant wood for him to gnaw on from her ring without even looking at him. “Nameless” did jog a distant memory. A story told by her mother maybe? It wouldn’t come to her though.

“No, Elder Ying,” she said self-consciously.

The Elder hummed thoughtfully. “Once, uncounted ages ago, long before the Sage Emperor arose and ended the Age of Warring Kings, before even the fall of the Dragon Gods, the world was not as it is today.” Ling Qi leaned forward, listening intently. “Spirits walked, flew, and burrowed freely through the world, which held to order and form only at their whim. There were no humans then, and beasts and spirits were born purely from the churning turmoil of the elements, most of them mere fragments and extensions of greater spirits with little true will of their own.

“Not all were pleased with this arrangement. The spirit which we know only as the Nameless Mother was one of the greatest of the Great Spirits, mighty even by the reckoning of their kind, and she grew to despise the disorder of the world and the loneliness of her existence. She came to desire companionship of beings who were not simply her thoughts given temporary form. She sought her fellow Great Spirits, but their incomprehensible company left her unfulfilled for Great Spirits were as alien to one another as such beings often are to us.”

Ling Qi thought about her own isolation in the streets. “So what did she do?”

“She tried for a time to create something which she could converse meaningfully with, but no matter what she attempted, her creations were little more than dolls moving at her whim,” Elder Ying said, a note of sadness touching her voice. “She tried again and again to no avail, using every element and combination she could think of. When her latest attempt, dolls shaped of clay and river water, had failed yet again, the Nameless Mother despaired and broke into tears over the clay dolls, which held no will of their own. Her despair was not for naught though as the sound of her tears brought the attention of another Great Spirit. He found the dark vortex formed by the Mother’s emotions a great curiosity, and when he beheld her crying over the dolls, a strange feeling came to him.”

Ling Qi’s lips quirked up for a moment. Of course it did. A man coming upon a crying woman - well, that was an opportunity, wasn’t it? She supposed that wasn’t where the story was going though since this was a story about spirits and the description was likely symbolism to make it comprehensible.

Elder Su paused, giving her an amused look, as if her thoughts were heard, and Ling Qi ducked her head, flushing.

The Elder continued, “Each Great Spirit was their own unique being with little connection to one another, yet this spirit felt strange at the sight of the Mother’s tears. He felt a pain as if he had come to harm. At first, he imagined it an attack and withdrew in suspicion. Eventually though, he found that he was not wounded, and once again, he grew curious, filled with a desire to understand. He returned and considered the scene. Soon, he came to the conclusion that the Mother’s pain had caused his and set about to correct the problem. The dolls were the obvious problem, but he could find no damage. Filled with her essence, they were active fragments, just as such things should be. Yet they were without motion or will as the Mother was a being of order and stillness. The other spirit, however, was a being of chaos and motion, and so, he considered that perhaps the stillness was the problem. He extended his own essence to the dolls and made them dance.”

Ling Qi couldn’t help the slight snort of laughter that escaped her lips. Surprisingly, Elder Ying, did not reproach her and let out a quiet chuckle herself.

“This story makes Great Spirits seem very simple,” Ling Qi noted. “Is that intentional?”

“Most likely,” Elder Ying answered kindly. “You must understand that the beings of this time had no real comprehension of communication with one another just yet. The world was new, and they were in many ways as children.There are many treatises on the evolution of Great Spirits, if the subject has your interest. For now though, simply keep that in mind as we continue. Now, this, of course, startled the Mother, who had been so embroiled in despair that she had not noticed the approach of the Other. She grew excited for the dolls before her acted without her will. She could perceive the existence of the other Great Spirit before her though, and it quickly became clear that he was the source. Her mood fell as she realized it was only another Great Spirit playing with her discarded creations.”

Ling Qi cocked her head to the side. What must it have been like, to simply be fundamentally unable to communicate?

“The other spirit saw her plunging mood and thought furiously about a solution. To a being such as him, it was obvious. The dolls needed more motion. He poured greater essence into the effort, going so far as to no longer puppet the dolls, but to infuse them with himself.” Elder Ying smiled. “And so, his essence mingled with the Mother’s, and from it was born two things: understanding and the very first humans.”

“So we are different because we were created?” Ling Qi ventured a guess. “We aren’t… natural the way spirits are?”

“That is roughly correct,” Elder Ying replied. “To summarize the rest of the tale, from their new understanding, the Mother and the Father found happiness and fulfillment for a time, but other spirits found their mingling of essence, the ‘impurity’ wrought by allowing oneself to be affected and changed by another being, to be repugnant and an abomination. The two were attacked and most of their first human children slain, but this proved a mistake, wrought by the other spirits’ ignorance and incomprehension. The Father and Mother were mighty beyond compare, and the assault enraged them. They slew an uncounted number of their brethren and severed a vast section of the primordial chaos, reshaping it into the world we know today. They sacrificed everything, even down to their names, to forge a world where their children could live and prosper. This is why Great Spirits can no longer interact directly with the world, and its nature is no longer ephemeral but ordered and solid.”

“If impurity came from the mixing of essences, does that mean that in order to reach the pinnacle of cultivation, you have to be alone?” Ling Qi asked.

Elder Ying gave her an approving look, but Ling Qi could see the hint of sadness in her eyes. “That is the contradiction of cultivation, yes. With each step taken closer to the divine, it becomes more difficult to maintain your connections, and it grows easier to isolate yourself as your peers grow fewer and fewer in number. After all, a Great Spirit is a unique existence, utterly separate from even other aspects of the same concept.” The Elder shook her head, letting out a sigh. “Such things will be beyond you for some time. Instead, let us speak of how this knowledge relates to your cultivation and the cultivation of your connection with your spirit…”

Ling Qi listened intently as Elder Ying spoke, explaining how to better feel the differences in the energy, how to detect more closely the part of her own energies bonded to Zhengui, and how to hone and refine that connection along with the qi in her dantian. She learned how to feel her spirit’s resistance to purification and how to overcome it without simply breaking the resistance down with force as most young cultivators did. It was enlightening, but she could tell this was only the beginning.

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