Ling Qi lifted her hand from Zhengui’s shell and wiped away the sweat that had beaded on her forehead while she concentrated. Her spirit lay on the ground before her, his serpentine tail curled around his shell as he slept. Scattered fragments of beast cores lay all around him, the only sign of the week’s worth of hunting income that she had fed into the all consuming furnace of his stomach.
“That was well done.” She looked up as her teacher, Elder Ying, spoke. The Elder was seated on a stone bench across from her, watching her with an assessing eye. “You maintained control of the beast qi without my aid this time. What changed?”
Ling Qi considered the question as she looked down at her spirit beast. It took focus just to sense the flows of energy from the cores as Zhengui sucked them down his twin gullets and even more to try and guide where the wild, chaotic energies went.
“It felt like there was something helping me this time,” she admitted. “Was that the connection you spoke of, Elder?”
“It is,” the elderly woman agreed. “A well formed spirit bond flows both ways. If you have succeeded in merging your intent with your spirit’s own natural digestive and cultivation processes, then I believe our lessons are done.”
Gently picking up the slumbering spirit, Ling Qi set Zhengui in her lap, brushing her thumb over the warm, smooth scales of his serpent head. “Will it really be alright to accelerate his growth like this?”
“So long as you are careful in your guidance,” Elder Ying replied. “Spirit beasts retain echoes of experience from their parentage, far exceeding the meagre instincts that are a human’s birthright. He will not come to harm or be damaged by the process.”
Ling Qi nodded in satisfaction. “Thank you very much, Elder Ying.”
“You are welcome.” The Elder smiled. It was easy to forget, sitting here in the garden, that the woman was not just a friendly old granny. “As this is to be our last lesson however, I do have something for you. It does not satisfy me to only offer such basic tutoring given the magnitude of the trouble you uncovered.”
Ling Qi felt her pulse speed up, and she was sure that a flicker of excitement reached her expression. Still, she managed to dip her head and force out a courtesy. “Elder Ying is too kind. Your lessons have been more than enough.”
“Nonsense,” the old woman dismissed as she stood gracefully, showing none of the difficulty one would expect from a woman of her apparent age. “I ensured your friend would be well stocked with ingredients for her new furnace and so I will ensure that you have an art with which to practice your bond with your spirit.” There was a flash and a stick of dark green jade appeared between her fingers.
Careful not to dislodge Zhengui from her lap, Ling Qi eagerly reached out to accept the token. Her arts were still few in number; she needed every one she could get her hands on. She sent a few sparks of qi circulating through the jade slip and peered at the exercises and information that appeared in her mind. Then, she paused and frowned, looking through it again. Was this really right? This art seemed totally unsuited to her. But she couldn’t just say that to an Elder. What if this was some kind of test?
Elder Ying cut off her racing thoughts. “I imagine you are confused. The Thousand Ring Fortress is an art which teaches its user to emulate the primal resilience of an ancient tree. It is not the sort of art you can see yourself practicing.”
Ling ducked her head, ashamed that her thoughts had been so clear. “I am not ungrateful, Elder Ying…” she began.
“I know,” the older woman said gently, holding up a hand to silence her. “I am not offended. I know how rushed these early days can feel as you scrabble for power, afraid to branch out on an experiment. However, it does you no good to decide your Way before you have even begun to truly walk it. Cultivate this art. Consider its lessons. There is more to resilience than merely standing still and taking blows.”
After a moment of hesitation, Ling Qi nodded and carefully stood up, still holding Zhengui. “I will take your advice to heart, Elder Ying,” she said, bowing low. While she was still unsure, it was foolish to ignore an Elder’s advice.
“I think you will find it less ill-suited than you think,” Elder Ying replied with amusement. “I see before me a remarkably tough and enduring young lady after all.”
In the days that followed their final lesson, Ling Qi followed the Elder’s advice and cultivated the Thousand Ring Fortress art. The art was old and well polished and had been developed by a once powerful but now defunct family within the Emerald Seas province. It allowed users to join themselves to the qi of the land and become like one of the mighty trees that still stood in the deepest forests of the province, vital and sturdy. And as a tree was not a forest, users of the art could extend this vitality to their allies. It made Ling Qi wonder how the Elder had gotten a hold of it.
Thankfully, it proved easier to cultivate than she had feared, and she quickly mastered the first pulse of the art; the practice she had gotten with wood qi from tending to Zhengui proved invaluable, and sparring with Xiulan in preparation for challenging some older disciples proved to be the perfect training tool for it. Cultivation of the Thousand Ring Fortress art also granted her insight into spiritual cultivation, and she reached Late Yellow during the spars.
Xiulan was too quick and accurate for Ling Qi to dodge all of her attacks, but her new Ten Ring Defense and the Deepwood Vitality techniques proved their worth in blunting the heat of her fires. However, Ling Qi did not have enough meridians to make use of both the Thousand Ring Fortress and Sable Crescent Step arts so it was only useful in practice for the moment.
Their preparations actually proved overambitious. As it turned out, most older disciples did not exceed her in cultivation, although there were a few close calls due to the skills and arts of her opponents. It was kind of odd fighting people she had no grudge against and who had no grudge against her beyond annoyance at her and Xiulan for being ‘upstarts’. She wouldn’t call the duels friendly, but they were hardly the stuff of grudges either.
It was a pain to realign her meridians away from Thousand Ring Fortress every time they finished sparring to go find more challenges. But she supposed she couldn’t complain when their winnings from the duels were paying for Zhengui’s food and refilling her distressingly low funds.
“It’s weird that they aren’t stronger, isn’t it?” Ling Qi asked as she strolled beside Xiulan. Fighting in her new gown was liberating; she could use her defensive arts with impunity given the way the dress enhanced the efficiency of her qi use.
“It’s strange that you are so strong,” Xiulan retorted, giving Ling Qi an exasperated look. “Even if you are one of those talented enough to be scouted by the Ministry, your growth is quick. The majority of cultivators remain at the upper reaches of the second realm for years, honing their abilities before attempting a breakthrough.”
“I suppose,” Ling Qi replied dubiously. It still seemed strange, but she supposed she was just receiving a skewed experience. Thinking about it, if she stripped out the eight strongest disciples from her year, there would only be a handful of strong disciples left. So it stood to reason the older disciples would, as a group, be similarly weakened by the loss of their eight strongest to the Inner Sect last year. They also hadn’t gone specifically looking for the strongest disciples either, just the ones Xiulan could goad into a duel. “Are we going to go out again tomorrow?”
“I think it might be best to give it a rest,” Xiulan admitted. “Well, unless we want to try something more dangerous,” she added with a sharp smile. “How would you feel about challenging that girl mentioned at the council meeting? The one sheltering Ji Rong.”
“That might be a bit much. If Cai Renxiang is avoiding outright antagonizing her, let’s at least wait until our spirits can contribute a bit more,” Ling Qi said, playing the voice of reason even if the idea was a little thrilling.
Xiulan sighed, disgruntled. “You are right, of course. I was getting ahead of myself.”
“How have you been anyway?” Ling Qi asked idly, watching her friend out of the corner of her eye as they strolled down the path to the training grounds. “I’ve noticed you’ve been getting along better with Fan Yu.”
Xiulan’s expression soured a bit as she caught Ling Qi’s eye, tossing her hair and turning up her nose in a haughty fashion. “It is not as if he was not already devoted to begin with,” she replied waspishly.
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” Ling Qi said evenly. “Are you alright, Gu Xiulan? The last few months have been rough.”
“I am fine,” Xiulan said hotly. “I am doing well, am I not? Perhaps not to your absurd standard, but well enough. Even Father has praised my progress.”
“I’m not talking about cultivation,” Ling Qi replied, thinking on her own social troubles. “Maybe I’m projecting a little, but you don’t seem happy with the way things are.”
Ling Qi knew the fiery girl well enough to notice the hurt in her eyes whenever Xiulan was forced to interact with Han Jian these days. It didn’t fill her with confidence about her own problem with Meizhen. She eyed her friend as the girl’s fists clenched and the air grew hazy; she could feel the updraft from the heat.
“Yes, you have your little spat with Bai Meizhen going on, do you not? I suppose you finally managed to prick her pride. It is hardly the same thing.”
It kind of was, not that she would dare give any hint of that. She bit back her initial harsh response with an effort and the cooling influence of Argent Mirror. “I am only offering to listen,” she said instead. “If you need someone to talk to.”
They stopped and Xiulan met her gaze, embers burning in her brown eyes. The heat flared, but then the girl looked away and her expression fell, taking the temperature with it. “You are going to get burned some day,” she sniffed, her normal demeanor returning.
“I’m a big girl. I can handle it,” Ling Qi replied easily, allowing the tension to leave her shoulders. “Besides, I have Zhengui to help with that.”
“Hmph. I suppose so,” Xiulan acknowledged. “In that case, do try to act surprised when I take you out to meet Cousin Tai next month. It is supposed to be a surprise,” her friend added, picking up the pace of her walk.
Ling Qi paused and blinked, not understanding what she meant, until memories of a conversation with Xiulan right after her breakthrough returned and her eyes went wide. “Hey, don’t joke about things like that,” she said reproachfully. Xiulan simply smirked and began to walk faster.
“You are joking, right?” Ling Qi asked incredulously. “You better be joking!”
She didn’t know if the other girl’s snort of laughter was an affirmative or not.