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Breathing out, Ling Qi focused her attention on the verdant green qi which encased her body like a layer of bark. The vibrant energies seemed to hum under her control, ready to burst out, to bloom and grow. However, Ling Qi maintained her concentration, and the wavering shell of green slowly grew thicker and darker, gaining depth and texture. At her feet, Zhengui chirped in delight, toddling around as streamers of vital qi spread across his shell as well.

To advance her understanding of the Thousand Ring Fortress Art, she needed to master its next technique, the Hundred Ring Armament, which meant improving her control of the Ten Ring Defense technique. The Hundred Ring Armament was a physical technique which would infuse her flesh with vitality and resilience rather than simply calling up a barrier as Ten Ring Defense did. Naturally, she wanted to perfect her control of the wood qi before she attempted something like that.

She could not afford to just sit here all day and meditate though. So, with the sun peeking over the horizon, Ling Qi dismissed the technique, letting the verdant armor fade away into motes of light. She had a job to do, not just to satisfy Cai Renxiang, but for herself. This Yan Renshu was going to learn why attempting to frame her was a poor idea. Ling Qi reached down and scooped up Zhengui as she stood. It was time to gather some information.

The first step was to remain subtle. If it became known she was poking around after Yan Renshu, it would be easier to avoid her, so Ling Qi took the time to disguise herself and keep her movements and questions discreet. She had grown rusty at such things over the past few months, but she still had the skill.

Yan Renshu was a young man three years her elder from a prosperous mortal family in the Heavenly Peaks province, the seat of the capital. However, following his first year when he had an unfortunate encounter with a disciple from a powerful family, he became a secretive sort, rarely appearing in public and instead, acting through intermediaries and sticking to his boltholes. Despite that, in the last year and a half, he had built a respectable following. Although not well liked by most of his peers, the older Outer Sect disciples regarded him as useful, and those in his employ were quite loyal by all accounts. His talents apparently lay in formations and earth and wood arts.

A few of his lairs were known, but the locations Cai gave her proved empty. All that remained were the chambers themselves, dug into the earth of the mountain with some art or another. Every known lair was trapped heavily, despite being stripped bare. Once, she nearly ended up buried under a collapsing roof, saved only by her movement art.

She moved more carefully after that.

Unfortunately, actually searching for leads on his other lairs proved difficult. Those openly associated with Yan Renshu or with Sun Liling had vanished into the wilderness in the aftermath of the recent chaos, and her own skill at tracking proved insufficient to dig them out of whatever hole they have chosen to hide in. There were rumors of Sun Liling being sighted lurking around at the base of the south side of the mountain, but beyond a single mutilated and exsanguinated spirit beast, she found no further signs of the girl or her minions.

As days passed without gaining any solid lead, Ling Qi decided to back off for the moment. She could not afford to stop getting stronger, and she would probably need to get further help for this task. Perhaps Su Ling would be willing? Even without her new art, Su Ling was a far better tracker than her, and Ling Qi had at least narrowed down the potential locations with her initial searches.

With the recent improvement of her music under Ruan Shen’s instruction, Ling Qi thought she had a lead on an opportunity. Every child in the Empire knew stories of men and women learning great and powerful secrets at the foot of mighty spirits, and had she not received just such an offer during the Moonfill mission? It would be dangerous, but from what she had gathered, the icy spirit of the peak that she had encountered was a very powerful fourth grade spirit.

If this failed, she still had the trial Fu Xiang had revealed to her to fall back on. However, after playing detective for most of the week, she felt more inclined to take the option that meant getting away to play some music. So, at dawn, she began to climb past the temperate lower reaches of the mountain and up the snowy peak. There was no driving storm today, just the frigid chill of high altitude.

It occurred to Ling Qi that she did not actually know where to find the ice spirit, but she had a plan for that. Finding the stretch of mountain she had explored before was not difficult, and from there, she simply climbed, higher and higher, seeking the coldest cliffs with the best acoustics.

It was a bit of a gamble, but she felt it was her best bet for attracting the spirit’s attention. Once she found a good, high cliff face from which sound carried well, she cleared the surface of a boulder of snow and sat down to play.

The first haunting notes of Forgotten Vale Melody rang out, the notes heavy with the weight of her qi as she let her mist flow from the flute sluggishly, spilling down from her flute into her lap and splashing across the snowy ground at her feet before slowly rising to consume everything around her. Ling Qi closed her eyes as she played, slipping into a more meditative state.

Images of the lonely vale deep in the mountains flowed through her thoughts, a panorama of stark beauty and loneliness. She wasn’t sure exactly how long she played, although it was long enough for her to go through every measure of the melody several times, but eventually, something changed. It was a chill breeze at first, then a gust carrying snowflakes with it.

Ling Qi opened her eyes as she felt frigid qi at the edge of her senses, and the wind picked up further, stirring her mist and spilling it over the edge of the cliff. Her song was interrupted when darkness erupted from the stone beside her, billowing upward and expanding. Instinct took over, and a knife flew into her hands as Ling Qi dove to the side and whipped the blade at the apparition. It passed through pale and perfect features without a mark and clattered against the rock.

Hanyi’s mother watched her with a raised eyebrow from where she now sat upon the rock beside her, her loose, empty sleeves resting on her lap. Ling Qi swore she saw a twinkle of amusement in those empty white eyes. Ling Qi narrowed her eyes at the powerful ice spirit. She knew that expression. It seemed Hanyi’s personality had not emerged from nowhere.

“Please do not startle me like that,” she said as she straightened up, dusting the snow from her mantle.

“I was expected, and this is my home,” the spirit rebuked, showing no further sign of any amusement. “You are, if anything, the one in the wrong, Disciple.”

“My apologies, spirit of the mountain,” Ling Qi said immediately, not wishing to provoke the powerful spirit. “You recall me then? I am Ling Qi, and I have come in the hopes that I might learn from you.”

“I recall,” the spirit replied, tilting her head slightly to the side as the hem of her gown billowed in the breeze, revealing the emptiness beneath. “You have improved,” she allowed, turning her head to observe the slowly dissipating mist. “You are fortunate that I found myself lacking burdens upon my time this night.”

“Fortune is another talent,” Ling Qi said lightly, bowing respectfully. “Might I know what I may call you, honored spirit?”

The ice spirit considered her, shimmering silver hair fluttering in the phantom breeze that surrounded her. “You may call me Zeqing. It is as good a name as any,” she mused, eyes tracking upward to the bright full moon in the clear and starry sky.

Silence reigned between them before Ling Qi pushed on. “Lady Zeqing,” she began with uncertainty. “May I have your instruction?”

“You may,” the spirit replied, crimson lips quirking upward. “Sit,” she said, gesturing to the stone beside her where Ling Qi had previously been seated.

Ling Qi eyed the spirit warily, but ultimately, there was no reason to hesitate. She bowed her head again and sat down as instructed. Her elbow brushed against the spirit’s dark gown and burned from the cold, even through layers of cloth.

“I have made some alterations to the melody since we last met,” Ling Qi ventured. “Were they pleasing to the ear?”

“Your new melody still holds to the beauty of the original,” the spirit answered in a voice that echoed like a cold wind. “I suspect you hold one of that man’s earlier attempts. That you came upon a number of the later improvements yourself speaks of your skill.”

“You knew the melody’s writer then?” Ling Qi asked curiously.

“Thrice I came for him, and thrice I was rebuffed,” Zeqing explained. “I was quite cross at the time,” she continued with quiet amusement. “Still, I watched some portion of the journey that produced that melody in the days before greed brought the fury of the Windriders upon this place.”

Ling Qi furrowed her brows in thought. The Cloud tribes had invaded the province half a millennium ago. “Will you help me improve the melody then?”

“I may. It is a pleasant enough way to pass an evening since that daughter of mine is with her father for the night,” the spirit said. As the wind picked up, there was a crackling sound, and Zeqing’s sleeves billowed, revealing perfectly formed hands of pure and clear ice where once there had been nothing. The hands held a flute of similar make. “Play with me for a time. If you keep up well enough, I shall help.”

It was relaxing, and more than that, fun to try and keep up with the near impossibly precise melody Zeqing played. It was a beautiful song, but it took all of Ling Qi’s acquired skill to keep up and not fumble any of the notes as she echoed the ice spirit. She continued to play even as her arm and side began to grow cold and numb with proximity to the frozen beauty until she flushed the feeling with a rush of qi.

They played one song and then another together as the night rolled past until at last, Zeqing was satisfied. The spirit rose from the stone and gestured for her to follow as the last notes faded, and Ling Qi did so, relieved that she had passed the difficult test. Hanyi’s mother lead her higher on the mountain through deep and winding ravines until they came upon a dead end shadowed by a high cliff overhead. It was cold here, far colder than outside, and not a single patch of stone was not covered in a layer of slick ice.

At the far rear end of the ravine lay a frozen black pool, mirror smooth and umarred. Powerful Qi radiated from it, and looking down, Ling Qi felt that she might stare into its depths forever if she were not careful. A haunting son seemed to rise from its limitless depths, and only by steeling her will could she pull her eyes away.

It was here that they began to work on her melody. Ling Qi demonstrated her first halting efforts at the next measure she sought to master while Zeqing offered correction. But the later measures of the melody were complex, and even with the potent qi of the pool bolstering her efforts and the spirit’s instruction, she was far from mastery.

Yet she felt the time spent worth it. Zeqing’s instruction differed from the slip in places, but Ling Qi could instinctively tell that the insights offered were improvements, corrections of the rough edges she was just beginning to perceive within the art. She knew that if she continued to take lessons from the spirit, she would receive greater results than if she continued to practice the melody on their own.

In the end though, the spirit’s time was limited, as was hers. They parted ways amicably enough, and Zeqing warned that she would only be available to work with her every other week. Still, it was a boon, and Ling Qi was thankful.

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