Ling Qi sat atop the roof of her home. Her eyes were closed, but her awareness spread far from her body. She felt the trickling streamers of starlight, dyed silver by the power of the moon, streaming down from the vault of the sky, and as she breathed, she drew them in and wove them carefully into her own qi, circulating and compressing until the stellar energies were indistinguishable from her own. Her dantian pulsed like a heart, growing infinitesimally denser with each cycle.
All concerns of the previous day faded from her mind as she drank in starlight and continued to work toward mastery of the third phase of her cultivation art, Eight Phase Ceremony. The chaos of the afternoon had the benefit of leaving the night peaceful by necessity, and Ling Qi took advantage.
As she fell into meditation up on the roof of the home she shared with Meizhen, Ling Qi allowed her concerns to drift away. The little aches of the day of combat and exertion faded next, and soon, there was only the peace of her even, rhythmic breathing and the slow cycling of her depleted qi through her dantian and channels. She exhaled and opened her meridians further, drinking in the faint threads of stellar and lunar qi drifting down from the night sky like a slow and lazy rain.
Her qi recovered first, and soon, the cool energies flowed outward from her channels, soaking into flesh and bone. Slowly, Ling Qi began to work on the next step, changing the pattern of her breathing as she began to cycle her qi in the complex pattern demanded by the next step, a looping eightfold lattice of energy that flowed from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes.
This time, the pattern did not break or waver. She cycled her qi again and again, drinking in new energy from the night sky all the while. Eight times eight cycles passed, and when next she breathed, the world was gone.
Ling Qi found herself sitting atop the water in the center of a shimmering black pool shrouded by mist. The only thing visible to her eyes were seven shining reflections in the water and a single circular void of unlight which somehow stood out even in the darkness. Her thoughts drifted slowly, hazy from deep meditation, but she could recognize this for what it was. It felt similar to peering into the jade slip. This was a construct of her own mind, a translation of concept into image for her to understand.
Curiously, Ling Qi reached out, fingers brushing the water over the waning crescent that represented the Grinning Moon. Water rippled, and a soft laugh echoed in her thoughts. Motion and cunning, trickery and light-hearted deceit. These were the hallmarks of the Grinning Moon. Images flashed across the water: a boy shadowed by deep purple mist, a room lit by eerie green lanterns, and a book and a slip of jade. Ling Qi withdrew her hand as she felt a tug on her qi. Somehow, she knew that if she held too long, her path would be set.
She prodded the other images one by one. From the void of the Hidden Moon, the keeper and seeker of secrets, rose the image of a cavern lit by bioluminescent fungus growing over the remains of a strange basalt gate. From the waxing crescent of the Bloody Moon, patron of retribution and blood spilled in the night, came the image of a puppet wearing her face and and the flash of a knife cutting down the dark shadow pulling its strings. The other phases rebuffed her touch, save for the Guiding Moon. The bright full moon representing the guide and protector accepted her touch, giving her an image of a hand carefully drawing out the complex lines of formation characters. The image shifted, and she found herself looking at the staid expression of Xuan Shi.
It seemed that the time had come to make a choice. She could feel that she would not be able to master the Ceremony further until she chose one of the moon phases and performed the offered task. Yet it did not feel final; she would not be locked to a single path. The moon was change, and she would see herself cultivating under more than one sister’s gaze by the end of the Ceremony.
Really though, was there any other choice? Ling Qi plunged her hands through the reflection of the waning crescent, and images flooded her mind. Soon, she awoke, staring up at the faint colors of dawn, rising into the sky.
Much of the next day was spent on Zhengui, hunting down minor cores for him to eat to make up for yesterday’s chaos and soothing his nerves. Her spirit was jumpy and nervous, alarm ringing from his thoughts at every loud noise or sudden motion in the world around them. He clung stubbornly to her shoulder rather than wandering around while she cleaned her kills. He had also taken to breathing out superheated ash at things which surprised him, which was a little dangerous but also amusing when it left him chirping triumphantly over a slain field mouse, only to have his kill stolen by his other head.
Ling Qi kept a wary eye on her fellow disciples when she saw them. There was a tense atmosphere on the mountain, like a levee on the verge of bursting. It was only a matter of time until skirmishes between the two factions began again.
However, Cai Renxiang was not idle. Cai had narrowed the scope of her enforcement, and those wearing her armband now traveled in groups of four rather than two. Ling Qi also saw many harsh group training and drilling sessions occurring throughout the areas Cai controlled. Cai Renxiang was pushing her recruits to grow stronger quickly and bolster the enforcer numbers through offers of medicines and training.
It wasn’t her concern. Ling Qi’s focus lay on preparing to host Xiulan for the night since she had invited the girl over for a little relaxation to unwind from a stressful week. She felt the need even more keenly given how worn out the other girl had appeared the previous day. Ling Qi had never really hosted guests before so her efforts were mostly guesswork, aside from the obvious necessity of gathering a veritable mountain of sweets and other light foods for them to snack on throughout the night. She enjoyed little luxuries like that, and Xiulan had more than a bit of a sweet tooth herself.
Evening came quickly enough, and Ling Qi busied herself preparing tea as she waited for Xiulan to arrive. She was not left waiting overly long as her friend arrived promptly on time. They traded a bit of small talk as Ling Qi lead her through her home and out to the porch overlooking the internal garden where she had set things up for them. Ling Qi had left Zhengui to his own devices in the sandy portion of the garden with a hefty amount of snacks of his own, and Xiulan released her own spirit to join him in the little enclosure to avoid the flighty spirit growing bored and becoming a distraction. With their spirits’ needs taken care of, the two of them were able to sit down on the thick blanket Ling Qi had laid out and relax under the cool evening sky.
“So, what have you been working on lately?” Ling Qi asked as she leaned back against the wall, a plate of sliced rice cake resting in her hand.
Gu Xiulan hummed to herself as she popped a spoonful of flavored ice into her mouth. Ling Qi was glad to see the gauntness in the girl’s cheeks hadn’t gotten any worse. She hadn’t missed the eagerness with which her friend had dug into the presented food. “Exercising and improving my body, of course. It does not do to let oneself fall behind,” Xiulan declared.
“That can’t be all,” Ling Qi said, savoring a bit of the sweet rice cake before speaking again. “I have been working on further mastering a few of my arts.”
“Of course not,” Xiulan replied testily, shooting her an annoyed look. “I continue to master my family’s cultivation art, and I have begun to practice our longer range combat art as well.”
Ling Qi held back a grimace; she hadn’t meant to be insulting. “That sounds interesting,” Ling Qi said instead. “What sort of art is that?”
Xiulan eyed her for a moment and let out a huff, taking another bite of sweet ice powder. “The Radiant Lance art is one of the Gu’s foundational arts. It is used to strike down distant foes with bolts from the heavens,” she said pridefully. “The full art is unmatched in the east.”
“Huh. I never would have guessed that you would use a heaven art,” Ling Qi mused as she finished chewing another bite of her rice cake. She stretched out her legs, letting her bare feet dangle over the edge of the porch. “I thought all of your family’s arts were fire.”
The other girl huffed, pointing her spoon at Ling Qi as she spoke. “My family is not so simple as that,” she said irritably. Then she glanced away. “It is a hybrid art of heaven and fire,” she muttered. “Father sent the novice’s slip along when I informed him of the spirit I had bound.”
Ling Qi made a sound of understanding and glanced toward the sandy enclosure. Zhengui was trundling along, kicking up grit as he chased after the fluttering fire fairy, which dangled a smoking stick of fragrant wood just out of his reach. Should she… No, she could feel an echo of agitation through their link, but it wasn’t serious; there was a certain playfulness to the scene.
“I hope that is all he sent along,” Ling Qi grumbled. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten that nonsense about trying to hook me up with some cousin.”
Xiulan gave a theatrical sigh. “Is the idea really that repulsive?” she asked, putting down the finished bowl and snatching up a plate of sachima before popping one of the little squares of fried batter and sugary syrup into her mouth. “Your closeness to Bai Meizhen will not ward off such things forever.”
“I don’t need to think about that kind of thing,” Ling Qi said stubbornly, only to wince as she saw her friend’s expression darken. “Well, more like I don’t want to. I just got that creep Huang Da to give up.”
Xiulan tsked under her breath. “I understand you don’t like the boy, but from what you have said of the encounter, it is probable that you have drawn the attention of a potential suitor of higher rank.”
Ling Qi paled a bit, shooting Xiulan a panicked look. The Huang were an old but declining count level house from what Meizhen had said. “What?!”
“Well, why else do you imagine the boy’s father would interfere in something so petty?” Xiulan asked, gesturing with one of the little wooden skewers that had been stuck into the squares of sachima. “I can’t say who it would be though. There are no children from the Zheng clan among the Sect as far as I am aware - nor would there be given their thoughts on the sects. Have you been approached by anyone of late?”
“No,” Ling Qi replied, trying to think of anyone she had met recently who might have shown such an interest. Nothing came to mind. “Let’s leave that aside for the moment.”
“As you wish,” Xiulan said. “You cannot avoid the subject forever though. Father will order me to introduce you at some point. I can promise that none of my cousins are so crude as that Huang.”
“Maybe I should ask Meizhen to fake something up,” Ling Qi grumbled. It wasn’t really a serious idea, particularly as things were, but it would be nice to keep such ideas far from everyone’s mind. “Anyway, what about you? How are things going with Han Jian? What was he up to last week?” In her haste to change the subject, Ling Qi jumped to the first thought that came to mind.
Her friend’s expression soured. “He has been quite busy,” she said irritably. “Too busy for either myself or Fan Yu. He discovered a trial site. I imagine he is receiving training of some kind from it.”
Ling Qi set aside her plate to take a sip of her still warm tea. “I am sure he didn’t mean anything by it. It makes sense to take family with you, right?” She didn’t really get it, but from watching Han Jian, she knew Han Fang was the only one Han Jian really seemed to properly confide in.
“Of course. I am nothing special to him after all, merely a vassal to be directed and occasionally humored,” Xiulan said bitterly.
“... I don’t think he feels like that, even if he doesn’t… feel quite the same as you,” Ling Qi said awkwardly. “I’ve seen you two together. You are friends, are you not?”
“I do not want to be friends,” Xiulan snapped. “I want him. I deserve that much, do I not? I work hard, harder than anyone else, save perhaps my sister, and what do I get for it? Chained to a fool and an oaf.”
“Fan Yu isn’t…” Ling Qi sighed. She couldn’t even finish that defense. She had thought the two of them had been getting along better, but Xiulan’s disdain was apparently still strong. “I am sure you can change that. You’ve been getting stronger quickly as of late, right?”
“And what good will it do me?” The other girl’s mood changed as quickly as it ever did as her shoulders slumped. “Jian promised me that I would always be at his side. It was a childish promise, but I believed it. Is it so wrong that I want him to look only to me? I tried so hard to scare away the tittering, empty-headed trash that his family tried to foist on him, and he always thanked me for it.”
Ling Qi shrugged uncomfortably. “I… don’t really know.” What did one say in this kind of situation? Ling Qi had no idea. “I do think you should talk to him though. You shouldn’t throw away a friendship so easily.”
Xiulan wrapped her arms around her knees. “It was him who threw it away. He said he had never loved me like that. As if he had never looked at me in that light. The liar.” She shook her head. “I want no more of it.”
Looking down, Ling Qi picked at her food. The mood had gone down fast. “I won’t tell you what to do,” she finally said. “There are plenty of handsome boys out there, right? You keep telling me so. Sulking doesn’t become a lady,” she added with false cheer.
Xiulan shot her an unamused look but straightened up. “You are right in that at least. Shall we both drop such conversation then? You have so many delicious dishes here. It would be a shame to leave them to waste.”
Ling Qi sighed in relief; Xiulan’s mercurial moods had swung in her favor for once. Still, she worried about her friend. In the end though, the girl’s problems were not something she could change. They could only be resolved by the people actually involved. All she could do was support Xiulan as she made her choices.
They stayed up late into the night speaking of lighter things and parted ways in the morning. It was time to plan her next week’s training.