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Studying through all of the security formations laid upon Wen Ai’s home was incredibly tedious, but if she was going to bypass them without breaking or defacing the schemes, it was an unfortunate necessity. She still wasn’t a fan of spending an hour in a cramped booth with a guy she didn’t particularly like. At least he wasn’t a creep like Huang Da.

Once the review was done, she got to work on her other mundane tasks, including going out to hunt and stockpile cores for Zhengui so that he wouldn’t go hungry while she was cultivating. She would have to make sure to ration them out though lest the little glutton eat them all in one go.

She supposed that might be a little unfair. He was growing at a pretty fast pace so his appetite wasn’t just gluttony for the sake of it. When he had hatched, Zhengui could be held in one hand, but he was now almost at the point of spanning both. Zhengui seemed to have found the trick of sitting on her shoulder without falling off of it by this point so she didn’t need to awkwardly carry him around by hand.

The day passed quickly as she gathered cores and spiritually infused fruits and wood for Zhengui. Once he was safely and comfortably asleep in his kiln, Ling Qi made her exit, slipping out of the girls’ residential area to head higher up the mountain where the older Outer Disciples lived.

Like the first years’ living area, it lay nestled in a small valley behind powerful warding totems, which thankfully didn’t bar her passage. The layout was different from what she was used to; there were fewer homes overall, but none of the truly tiny ones like the hovel Su Ling and Li Suyin had been living in prior to truce end. She supposed that made sense. Many of the shops in the market had attached living spaces so maybe other older outer disciples lived outside of the residential area set aside for them.

Ling Qi focused on the mission at hand as she flitted over the rooftops, unnoticed by the handful of girls out and about in the neatly paved streets. There were signs of battle damage here and there and at least one home too broken to live in, but the damaged areas all seemed to be under the process of repair despite the fact that Cai Renxiang’s authority didn’t extend this far yet.

Ling Qi scanned ahead carefully before each jump, checking for signs of security. This caution lead her on a roundabout path to a cozy home in the upper left quadrant of the area. Ling Qi briefly wondered when she had come to see a stand alone home larger and more opulent than any home in the outer reaches of Tonghou as ‘cozy’.

Dismissing that thought, she carefully observed the residence from a nearby rooftop then slowly circled it as she confirmed the information Fu Xiang had given her. The information she had been given seemed pretty accurate.

As Fu Xiang had informed her, the home appeared empty in the early hours of twilight; Wen Ai typically remained out cultivating until well past midnight. Ling Qi would have plenty of time to slip through the defenses, and she waited for the last light of sunset to slip from the sky and shroud her in comforting darkness before she began.

First came the alarm laid around the perimeter. It was much more secure than the basic formation she knew. The one she knew could be bypassed with a bit of simple qi control, but Wen Ai’s alarm required Ling Qi to carefully watch the flow of qi through the encircling scheme and control her own to match its frequency. Even with that, it was only possible to bypass the alarm by entering at just the right spot.

Ling Qi passed into the yard without a sound and pressed herself against the wall, hidden by one of the decorative flower bushes that dotted the girl’s outer yard. The next obstacle was her best point of ingress, a small window in the home’s kitchen meant to let out heat and smoke. It was too small for anyone but a small child to fit through, especially with the wooden bars breaking it up. Yet for her, it wasn’t an obstacle at all.

Ling Qi had told Fu Xiang that she would enter through a larger window on the other side of the home, taking advantage of a flaw in the trap formations, but this was better. Qi flowed smoothly in her channels, and her limbs grew blurry and grey. The moment she had sight of the kitchen, she was inside. Blinking from one place to another like that was still very disorienting though, and she wavered for a moment before regaining her form.

Even leaving aside the difficulty of placing too many formations in close proximity, wholly lining one's home with traps was a good way to end up having one of them explode in the occupant’s face. Ling Qi She would be mostly safe until she got to opening the chest containing the box of letters now.

She crept through the halls, idly noting the many flowers in vases, hanging from planters on the ceiling and more. Wen Ai seemed to have a theme, albeit understated.

Wen Ai’s bedroom was tidy and neat with minimal furnishings. It pained Ling Qi to ignore the chest in the corner and a closet full of no doubt expensive clothes, but she had a simple goal and that was to acquire the letters and replace them with the fakes without being noticed. Perhaps she could look into doing a few more personal heists in the future.

Her target lay under the girl’s bed, and soon, she had the polished wooden footlocker dragged out where she could get a good look at it. This was going to be the tricky part. The formation seal on its lock was no joke.

Ling Qi had never been so thankful to have hairpins sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of a cultivator’s life. She felt the tense qi of the trap waver on the edge of going off several times when her control wavered or when her makeshift tools scraped wrongly. Eventually, the lock clicked open, and she was able to access the items inside the footlocker. In addition to the jade lockbox with the letters, Ling Qi could see pieces of beautiful jade jewelry, a small hand sized painting of a girl she presumed to be Wen Ai and a boy she did not know, and most temptingly, a single jade slip. It took all her willpower not to snatch it, but she had a job to do and a missing jade slip would defeat it. Ling Qi quietly removed the box of letters and placed the one full of blank fakes in its place then closed the locker, the formation’s automatic re-locking working in her favor as she slid the locker back under the bed.

With her target secure in her storage ring, Ling Qi slipped out of the house, her heart pounding in her ears. That had been a whole different sort of tense than the mission in the spider nest but satisfying all the same. She resisted the urge to hurry as she sneaked back out of the residential district via the sheer cliffs at the rear, aided by short bursts of flight from her new gown. The feeling of flight was intoxicating, but she didn’t dare hold it for more than a few seconds at a time for fear of draining her qi overmuch.

Once she reached the top of the cliff, she took a few minutes to meditate and absorb starlight into her dantian to replenish her qi before heading to the arranged meeting point for the handoff. She met Fu Xiang precisely where he said he would be, in a secluded hollow on the east side of the mountain, and handed over the box. In return, she received a map and a page of notes.

Ling Qi took a brief look at it, but it seemed legitimate. The map pinpointed the location of the trial as being near the peak of the mountain, and the notes appeared to be a description of the warped space around it. Apparently, the warp turned the small network of crevices in which the trial entrance was located into a maze. The trial itself would accept up to two people at once but no more. It was more than she expected frankly so she wouldn’t complain.

The two of them parted ways amicably enough, but as Fu Xiang pushed his glasses up with a finger, moonlight caught on his lenses, concealing his eyes behind the gleam. Ling Qi found Fu Xiang’s wide smile of satisfaction disturbing.

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