Zhengui had grown, and not just physically.
When she had lain down for her weekly sleep, he had still been big enough to fit in her hands. When she awoke and went to fetch him from his kiln, she had found the entrance cracked open and two, much larger sets of eyes staring up at her. She could still pick him up comfortably, and even hold him in her arms, but he was nearly a half meter long, ignoring his serpentine half.
‘Fix? Sorry.’ His thoughts were growing more ordered, allowing her to more easily translate the meanings into words. She could feel his sheepishness as he pawed at the ground with his stubby claws and the serpent half studiously avoided her eyes.
“I guess it was only a matter of time before I needed to build you a new bed.” Ling Qi sighed , shaking her head. He had shot up to the middle of the first realm too, as far as her senses could tell, and he was racing on toward the end of it. It seemed her little spirit was reaching the end of his infancy.
‘Breakfast?’ She glanced back down at him to meet his bright green eyes, hopefulness shining from his blunt, beaked face. ‘Hunt?’ She was faced with a second set of eyes, this time of fiery red.
“... Breakfast first.” Ling Qi crouched down, slipping her arms under his shell as she picked him up. He was warm to the touch, and his shell had grown rougher, like knobby, petrified tree bark. “C’mon, then. You’re going to have to start helping though, you know? You’re growing up quick.”
‘Help Mother. Eat good,’ two voices chorused together. Gui nestled against her chest while Zhen peered cautiously over her shoulder, forked tongue trailing ash as it flicked in and out. Ling Qi almost missed a step.
“Big Sister,” she said quickly, reaching down to rub his blunt beak with her finger. She did her best to convey feeling as well as words. “I’m not that old yet,” she added lightly.
Bright green eyes blinked up at her in confusion. ‘Big Sister! Hunt now!’ The moment was interrupted by his other head, who looked to her plaintively.
“Yeah, yeah, no need to be impatient,” she chided, even as she fished a stick of wood from her pocket to calm Zhengui’s rumbling belly. She would have to start cutting these sticks larger with how much he was growing. She would miss being able to have him ride on her shoulder. Maybe Cui could teach Zhengui her size adjustment trick?
For now, it was time to gather a healthy meal for her little glutton of a spirit. Once that was done and he was settled in, she would have to arrange something else for his bedding. Then, she would head up to the vent to begin working on refining the Thousand Ring Fortress. Even in its early stages, it had proved very useful in bolstering her friends and allies, letting the group break through the enemy line with minimal injury.
She still had a long way to go before that art could be considered mastered. She remembered Li Suyin tumbling to the ground in a heap, and blood blossoming on Meizhen’s white gown. Next time, she would do better.
Ling Qi descended the mountain to hunt and forage, keeping the cores and various fruits and plants that he seemed to enjoy and selling the rest for various spiritually infused woods and even more cores.
Once she had a large stockpile built, the main challenge was keeping the hungry little snake-tortoise out of it and resisting the twinned powers of wide and plaintive eyes combined with increasingly articulate childish pleas for treats. She held firm though. She would only give him so much each day. If he wanted more, he had to do some foraging himself.
... Well, she mostly held firm. A few treats while he sat in her lap chirping happily couldn't hurt, right? The day blurred by, and she did not get very much cultivation done until late evening when it was time to meet Meizhen for some further training time.
Ling Qi hadn’t seen the girl since the day of Sun Liling’s return, and their conversation that evening had been quick and utilitarian. She was happy to see her friend looking as hale and graceful as ever as she flowed through the motions of what Ling Qi recognized as one of her family's unarmed combat exercises.
“Meizhen, good evening,” she greeted as she stepped off the porch and onto the garden path. Zhengui trundled along at her side, his blunt clawed feet scrabbling a bit at the polished wood. “I’m glad to see you’re doing well. Have you been keeping busy with shoring things up around here?” Ling Qi was a little unsure as to how deeply involved Meizhen was with the Cai heiress at this point.
Meizhen turned to face her as she approached, lowering her hands from their combative position. “Good evening,” she greeted, acknowledging Ling Qi with a slight nod. “I have been refining certain underdeveloped portions of my repertoire. Cui has needed some aid in acclimating to her new status as well,” the pale girl continued evenly, her golden eyes flicking over to the garden pond.
The pond rippled, and after a moment, emerald green scales broke the surface and Ling Qi found herself under the regard of another set of golden eyes. Cui had grown as well. The serpent was as thick as a young tree now and looked as if she could swallow a large dog whole.
‘Such trouble, Sister Meizhen. No more training today, yes?’ Ling Qi’s eyes caught motion out of the corner of her eye, and on the other side of the garden, she saw Cui’s tail slip under the surface of the area’s second and entirely unconnected pond. That was a… powerful ability.
“Everyone is growing so fast these days,” Ling Qi mused. “That reminds me though. Is that shrinking trick of yours something any spirit can do? Zhengui had a little growth spurt himself.” Ling Qi wondered when talking to a snake big enough to fit her head in its mouth had become normal.
Cui flicked her tongue twice silently, and briefly, Ling Qi wondered if the serpent would ignore her. Then Meizhen tilted her head slightly, giving her cousin a pointed look and the snake let out a soft hiss.
‘The little thief is too young. He will not have the focus,’ Cui responded haughtily, giving Zhengui a look of reptilian disdain. He responded by hiding behind her legs, but Ling Qi saw his serpentine half peeking out, giving off a feeling of awe as he stared up at the bigger snake.
“It is not impossible, no,” Bai Meizhen said frankly. “Many spirit beasts are able to vary their size somewhat, although there is a limit.” A slight smile touched her lips as she glanced at Cui. “She will no longer be able to play choker, for example.”
‘It is not fair,’ Cui sulked, even as she shrank and slithered from the pool, vibrant scales glimmering with moisture. By the time she stopped shrinking, Cui was still over two meters long. ‘Sister Meizhen is cruel,’ she grumbled.
“Well, that is good to know,” she decided. “How are things outside though? I’ve been down in the forest today.”
“They are holding,” Meizhen replied simply, and it was a relief to see her speaking normally and without hesitation, meeting Ling Qi’s eyes with only a slight pause as she folded her arms. “That barbarian is licking her wounds, and if I know her kind, she is likely rearming and training her subordinates. Several older disciples from the western territories have openly joined her, as has Ji Rong.”
Ling Qi frowned. That was trouble in the making there. She doubted that Sun Liling would be satisfied with merely having her own faction, even if its existence in and of itself was a snub to Cai Renxiang as she understood things. “Are we doing anything about that?” she asked, toying with the end of her braid.
“We are regrouping ourselves,” Bai Meizhen answered, shifting her stance slightly to a more combative one as her flying sword manifested in a flash above her shoulder. “For now, we push our own strength. I should like to begin, if it is all the same to you. We do not have the luxury of dawdling.”
“I can get behind that,” Ling Qi agreed, slipping into her own stance. “I need to get faster myself.” She glanced down at Zhengui, who looked up at her with worry emanating from his thoughts. “It’s okay, Zhengui. My friend and I are just going to play a little, alright? Why don’t you go get a treat from the wood shed?”
He looked to Meizhen uncertainly but backed away, toddling off toward the flowerbed Cui had disappeared into.
“You do not need to speak aloud to communicate with him,” Meizhen said as she examined Ling Qi’s stance.
“I know, but I’m not very good at trying to project thoughts yet. Speaking is easier. I’m working on it,” Ling Qi said. After a moment’s thought, she summoned up the practice weapon she had been working with, the heavy glaive materializing in her hands from within her storage ring. “Do you mind if I work with this? I want to try out Sable Crescent Step with a different motion set.”
“Do not blame me for the blows you suffer in doing so,” Meizhen allowed. “And do not forget to practice. Instant communication with one’s partner is invaluable in battle.”
Ling Qi nodded, and they began to circle one another. Then, Bai Meizhen blurred, a fine spray of mist kicked up in her wake, and Ling Qi’s limbs dissolved into shadow as she strained to match the other girl’s speed.
It was nice, aside from the stinging pain of the minor toxin Meizhen used for the spar. Sparring and cultivating together was something they could still do without awkwardness, and Ling Qi was glad for it.
All good things come to an end though, and they parted ways well after midnight to get back to their own tasks. Zhengui had fallen asleep in his adjusted kiln while they sparred, so Ling Qi ghosted away without any trouble, returning to the higher cliffs she had taken to using for absorbing starlight. She needed to meditate further to decipher the cloud of images, sounds, and memory that had flashed through her thoughts when she was considering the tasks from various phases of the moon.
The odd post-combat vision and her actions in the immediate aftermath made her a little wary, but she was more aware now of the foibles of the lunar qi she used. She wouldn’t let herself grow so erratic again.
It did not take long to return to that place within her thoughts, the dark pool that reflected the phases of the moon. This time, when she reached for the reflection of the Grinning Moon, she kept her focus, and the torrent of sensation did not overwhelm her.
Soft, amused laughter rang in her ears as her surroundings spun away in a whirl of silvery luminescence, and for a moment, she felt the sensation of cool, delicate hands upon her shoulders as visions flashed in front of her eyes, imparting the quest of the Grinning Moon. The jade slip and the book, a thick tome with a dark red cover and no title, were a piece of power and a piece of knowledge, the first for her, and the second to share.
The figure in the mist grew clearer, revealing a tall, whip-thin boy with dark catlike green eyes that glowed faintly and who cast a hunched, misshapen shadow. She did not recognize him, but her memory spun, and the words spoken by the boy she had threatened rose to the surface. Yan Renshu. Her target was the older Outer Sect disciple, the one who Cai had said was the maker of that puppet that attempted to frame her.
The visions of ghostlike green lanterns and an underground room came next. The location perhaps? It remained unclear.
What did not remain unclear was her objective. She was to steal a technique slip and acquire the book from him, or at least the knowledge inside of it. She was to… reveal something from the book, which would cost him much face. What exactly would be revealed, however, remained shrouded in her mind’s eye.
It seemed that was all she was going to get. The visions faded, replaced by the twinkling of stars overhead. Ling Qi remained seated for a time, considering the scant details of the task she had been given. It was barely an outline of a task; she had the absolute essentials, but nothing else.
She could feel something had subtly changed in the practiced flows of her internal energies. As she slipped down from the high cliff, blending in with the shadows, she felt a tiny trickle of qi continuing to flow into her dantian, only to cease as she stepped out into the street outside of her house. Slipping back into the shadows on a whim, she followed another girl unseen for a time and with each soft and unheard step, her qi cycled, just a little more.
It seemed the Grinning Moon had given her a taste of her blessing already.