Given the early hour, Ling Qi decided to simply head to the vent and cultivate until the sun rose. She had a heart and spine meridians to clear if she wanted to make full use of her new Thousand Ring Fortress art, and even if the site didn’t exactly help her to do so, soaking in the Argent energy helped her concentrate and focus. Besides, it would be some time until she would meet up with Meizhen for training.

Ling Qi would be lying to herself if she said that the first day training together with Meizhen again wasn’t awkward. After their last few meetings, both of them had trouble meeting one another’s eyes. Ling Qi tried to think of something to say to break the silence that didn’t sound stupid in her head.

In the end, it was Zhengui who saved her from needing to when he attempted to wriggle out of her arms, chirping loudly and broadcasting his desire to get back to his kiln. Even as she looked down in consternation to meet the faintly glowing eyes of his serpentine half, she felt the tension between her and Meizhen somewhat draining.

“Sorry about that,” she said apologetically, looking back up to meet Meizhen’s eyes. “Looks like I’ve kept him out for too long.” She turned away to set her spirit on the ground near the base of the kiln; she had thrown together a little ramp to let him trundle up to the opening on his own. “This is Zhengui. I didn’t get a chance to introduce you earlier.”

Meizhen pursed her lips, eyeing the little turtle and the serpentine ‘tail’ coiled on his back. “... If you chose the characters that I suspect you did, then your sense of humor remains terrible, Ling Qi. You should not treat a spirit’s name so casually, especially one such as that.”

Ling Qi grinned sheepishly, brushing a few stray hairs out of her eyes. “Well, it might be a little funny, but it’s also appropriate. I think, whatever he is, he’s precious to me, and I’ll treat him right.” Silence fell between them before Ling Qi clapped her hands. “So, what are we going to do today? I said I wanted to work on my movement art, but what do you want to do? And where is Cui anyway?”

“Cui is currently doing some growing,” Bai Meizhen said vaguely. “I have assured her safety, but she requires some time alone. I believe I would be best served to practice my control. It is difficult to train it without a proper opponent.”

“Your control of what?” Ling Qi asked curiously. “Did you learn a new technique?”

“I am not yet so far as to cultivate any techniques with it,” Meizhen replied negatively, even as she gestured and a blade appeared in her hand. It was a thick curved blade that glistened with a mirror sheen and faded to a deep toxic green at the edge. Oddly, it had no handguard and the hilt did not seem quite large enough for a blade as long as it was. “My aunt was kind enough to gift me with my first flying sword. The attunement process was easy enough given its origin, but I have not yet mastered controlling it in tandem with my other arts.”

Ling Qi blinked. She wasn’t completely ignorant any more so she knew what a flying sword was. At the third realm and higher, a cultivator could control specially prepared and tuned weapons and talismans that could effectively fight autonomously from them.

“What did you mean about the origin?” Ling Qi asked curiously, taking a step closer to examine the blade; there was a pretty potent qi suffusing it. “Your aunt must have been pretty proud to send you something so nice, huh?” she mused.

Meizhen’s expression was unreadable. “It is a fine gift, more than I deserve. I am only glad that I have not brought shame to my clan,” she said after a moment. “There is a certain satisfaction to having dealt that Sun barbarian a defeat.”

“Yeah, there is that,” Ling Qi agreed, amused. “You didn’t answer my other question though.”

Her pale friend blinked but then nodded. “My apologies. It is made from a shed scale of her own spirit companion, Cui’s mother.”

Ling Qi glanced back down at the blade, which was nearly a meter long. Just how big was Cui going to grow?

“Huh. Yeah, I guess that would make it pretty easy to attune. So, I’ll be practicing defense while you work on your offense?”

“That would be our normal dynamic,” Bai Meizhen acknowledged, releasing the stunted hilt of the sword as it rose into the air above her shoulder with a slight wobble. “If you would release your mist as well, that would be preferable. I must maintain control even in adverse circumstances.” Ling Qi didn’t miss the touch of bitterness in Meizhen’s voice when she said that.

Ling Qi hid her grimace and didn’t comment on it. “Fair enough. I need to work on keeping all of my techniques up and running at the same time anyway,” she said brightly instead.

“Have you continued refining your willpower?” Meizhen asked cooly as her normal weapon appeared in her hand and the two of them began to pace apart to reach a more appropriate dueling range.

“Well, no,” Ling Qi admitted. “I haven’t really had time.”

“Then I shall endeavor to make up for lost time,” Meizhen replied simply. “Let us begin.”

Being on the other end of Meizhen’s attacks was terrifying, as expected. With the ‘hood’ and mantle of water shadowing her face, leaving only her glowing golden eyes visible as Meizhen struck unceasingly with whispering, hissing strands of metal that cut through the air at impossible angles, the pale girl was like some phantom out of a horror story. Of course, Ling Qi had her own tricks, being little more than a flickering, flute playing shadow surrounded by immaterial phantoms in the mist.

It seemed like her friend was working on a more offensive style while using her new flying sword, unlike the reactive, counter build she had used in previous fights. Frankly, it was only the awkwardness of Meizhen’s control of her flying sword and the way that it distracted from her other motions that let Ling Qi keep up as well as she did.

Still, despite the moment to moment terror of fighting the serpentine girl and the pain of the many superficial cuts she received when ‘tagged’ in the spar, it was nice to return to normality. She was also glad to get back into the practice of trying to resist attempts to disperse her mist. Such techniques were becoming more and more common among the enemies she fought.

The next few days continued in the same vein. Ling Qi spent the evenings and nights cultivating toward the third phase of Eight Phase Ceremony and the days steadily clearing the ever more difficult meridians that would allow her to channel greater and more diverse flows of qi without interfering in her other techniques. Her only interruption, other than daily sessions training with Meizhen, were her efforts to care for Zhengui, hunting for cores or simply playing with the growing and impatient little xuanwu.

His initial voraciousness hadn’t faded, but Zhengui was beginning to show interest in other things, curiously exploring her favored cultivation spots. His guileless curiosity nearly gave her a heart attack at times though, like when he had poked his heads into the argent vent itself and nearly tipped into the seemingly bottomless crack from which the mist issued. Ling Qi had lunged to grab him by his snake half, gaining her a faceful of soot from the distressed serpent as she hauled Zhengui back out. It was the first time she found herself genuinely scolding him.

Her anger, alarm, and worry elicited genuine contrition from the little snake-tortoise though, and he had spent the rest of the morning either curled up in her lap or periodically bringing her shiny rocks and on one occasion, a still wiggling field mouse, chirping apologetically all the while. It was just too much. Ling Qi couldn’t really stay angry at him, despite the fright he had given her.

Other than a few minor scares though, her schedule quickly gained the comfort of repetition. It wasn’t to last.

On the fourth day of her twenty-fifth week at the Sect, Ling Qi found her cultivation interrupted. She had just finished opening the second of her meridians and had been carefully working through the post-opening ‘cleanup’ to ensure that the channel didn’t close again when she felt something strange in the air, a wisp of qi she didn’t recognize and too controlled to be a beast or a spirit.

Ling Qi swiftly rose to her feet, startling Zhengui, who had been resting in her lap. He let out a simultaneous displeased hiss and a surprised chirp as she dematerialized him.

“Who are you?” Ling Qi demanded, scanning the trees and straining her senses. There it was again, muted and distorted, hidden among the thick woods that cloaked the entrance to the vent.

All was silent for a long moment, and Ling Qi felt the urge to activate her gown and flee over the cliffside, but no, this was her spot, together with her friends. She wouldn’t abandon it so easily. Her flute appeared in her hand, even as a knife fell into the other.

“Last warning! Reveal yourself or I attack.” Ling Qi had a pretty good pinpoint on where the distortion was now, even if she couldn’t precisely see anything.

“Tch. Should have known that guy would sell me junk,” a deep but feminine voice grumbled. “Or maybe I’m just bad at this sneaking stuff?” The air rippled, revealing the speaker.

Ling Qi’s first impression of the other girl was that she was tall. It had been years since Ling Qi had to look up to meet the eyes of a girl in her age group. The second was that the other girl was big in a way that Ling Qi wasn’t. Ling Qi was pretty sure the dark skinned girl’s biceps were as thick as her own thighs.

“Sorry about that,” the muscular girl said with a hint of apology in her tone, tearing the remains of a paper tag of some sort from the front of the iron plate strapped across her chest. The iron plate was the only covering on the girl’s upper body aside from the padded jerkin underneath, leaving the girl’s arms and midriff scandalously bare. The lower half of the girl’s body was concealed by the underbrush. “Had to make sure you didn’t pull a runner. You’re pretty fast by all accounts.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Ling Qi said coldly. There remained a good twenty meter distance between them, but it wasn’t enough to allow her to leave if the other girl didn’t want her to, especially since she could feel that the muscular girl was fully in the third realm.

“I didn’t,” the girl admitted. “My name is Chu Song. I suppose I caused you a bit of trouble since I told that demon’s thugs to shove it when they came around for lil’ bro Rong.” Chu Song said it casually, as if it were a small concern.

Ling Qi studied the other girl, fingering the flute in her hand as Zhengui broadcasted worry and alarm into her mind. Chu Song felt like a storm-wreathed mountain to her qi senses, tempestuous and violent with an utterly immovable core.

“I suppose it caused some problems for Lady Cai,” she acknowledged warily, straining her senses to sense out any other presences. She could feel two on the path she used to leave the vent, but they weren’t close. “What do you want then? Revenge for the trouble?”

“Nah. I just promised that bloody princess that I’d keep you out of the ruckus she’s raising.” As Chu Song strode forward out of the underbrush, Ling Qi backed up, keeping an even distance. The other girl wore a pair of dark grey, baggy pants tucked into knee-high armored boots. “I didn’t mind doing her a favor since I wanted a chat with you anyway.”

Ling Qi glanced to the side, her heartbeat picking up. Sun Liling was back? She had known the princess wouldn’t stay away forever, but there hadn’t been any warning at all! She needed to get out of here. If Meizhen was caught up in this, she needed to back her friend up.

“I will stop you if you try to leave I gave my word and all,” Chu Song drawled easily. “You shouldn’t worry so much. That princess is only after that Cai demon at the moment. Miss Bai’ll be fine.”

“That isn’t reassuring,” Ling Qi snapped as she glared at the taller girl. The hem of her gown kicked up in a phantom wind.“We are kind of her allies if you can’t tell.”

“Are you now?” Chu Song asked dangerously, the snap of electricity from the air around her matching Ling Qi’s own rising wind. “I wouldn’t have figured you were actually loyal to that demon. If so, that’s my mistake. I suppose we can duel if you really want to play the loyal dog.”

“And get jumped by your friends on the path below while we fight?” Ling Qi asked acidly. “Don’t make it sound as honorable as all that.”

“You do have pretty sharp senses, don’t you?” Chu Song asked rhetorically with a sharp grin. “But no, if you want to fight it out, we’ll do it fair and square. On my word.” She emphasized her statement by thumping a fist against her armored breastplate. “They’ll only involve themselves if you try to run. I’ll even leave out my spirit since yours isn’t exactly combat-ready.”

Ling Qi scowled. She hated being in situations like this, where she was missing so many facts. She didn’t even know if the other girl was telling the truth about Sun Liling, although she seemed sincere about fighting ‘fairly’ if it came down to it.

A note from Yrsillar

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