With the spirit’s departure, Ling Qi now had more time than she had thought she would. It seemed that she also would be seeking out the trial this week, instead of as a backup alternative. She would need a partner though as it was a two person trial, and she knew just who to ask.
How to approach Gu Xiulan... Han Jian and his cousin were back, and they had once again taken to working with her friend and the girl’s fiance. Ling Qi was hardly politically savvy, but she had a feeling that inviting Xiulan along to her trial when Han Jian hadn’t invited the girl to his might be a turning point of sorts.
Ling Qi did not consider herself knowledgeable about politics. From Meizhen and time spent browsing histories in the archive, she had managed to pick up a sort of fuzzy outline of how things stood. She knew the names of the most important families and some various general information about the Empire’s provinces.
She was not sure how to engage with the system in place, however. There weren’t really any books on the subject, beyond etiquette texts and other such related things. She strongly suspected that it was the kind of thing one was just expected to pick up, like the pecking order among the street folk in Tonghou.
So after her initial resolve to ask Xiulan to accompany her on the trial Fu Xiang had revealed to her, she began to worry. She knew Xiulan was drifting further away from Han Jian, and she knew things in their group were getting strained. It seemed like a strange thing to worry about, but she had been spending a lot of time with Xiulan lately and it might appear to others or even Han Jian that she was trying to pull her away.
It seemed absurd, but so did a lot of things about the weird relationships among the various nobles here. She mostly avoided it herself, for one reason or another, but it seemed like something she should at least mention to Han Jian to make sure she wasn’t sending any unintended signals, particularly when she was only half aware of which signals were bad in the first place!
In her effort to meet up with Han Jian, she found herself at the pavilion where the council meetings took place. Han Jian had returned from wherever he had been off to, and according to what she could gather, he was coordinating with some lesser members of Cai’s faction on some kind of training effort. She made sure to arrive around the time that he would be finishing up.
Han Jian had changed, she noted idly as she waited at the exit to the pavilion area. He seemed more confident and more decisive in demeanor as he instructed the enforcers. He was wearing the Cai robe that she had previously seen him wear, this time with a white cape pinned over his shoulders. She wondered if he had practiced to get it to flutter like that.
Her eyes drifted to Han Fang as the two of them approached the exit. The larger boy was a step behind his cousin as always and had changed to a more martial set of gear, similar to Han Jian but of lesser quality and lacking the cape. The weapon on his back, a massive mace with the spherical, ridge-lined business end the size of her head, was new as well.
“Ling Qi,” Han Jian said, raising his hand in greeting as he approached. “Sorry I haven’t had a chance to talk with you since we got back.” His qi had grown more vibrant as he had broken through to Late Yellow since she had seen him last.
“It’s fine. You’ve been busy. It happens,” she said with a shrug. “If you’re done for now, do you think we could talk for a bit?”
Han Jian cast a glance over his shoulder at the other disciples slowly scattering to the other exits then nodded.
“That’s fine. Before anything else though, I would like to thank you,” he said, bowing his head, lower than was strictly proper. “You helped my friends out of some real trouble. I owe you one.”
Ling Qi blinked then scratched her cheek sheepishly. “They’re my friends too,” she said uncomfortably. “Well, Gu Xiulan is.”
“I know,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad she has someone else to look out for her. Figures I would pick just the right time to disappear, huh?”
“That’s not your fault,” Ling Qi reassured him hurriedly. She felt a little silly about letting him know about her intended plan to ask Xiulan now. “I just wanted to let you know that I was planning to ask Xiulan to accompany me for a trial tomorrow. Figured you would want to plan around it.”
“Oh, thanks for the warning,” Han Jian said slowly, giving her a concerned look. “There’s something else you're worried about though,” he pointed out shrewdly.
Ling Qi glanced at Han Fang, who was facing away from them, arms crossed. There was a faint buzzing in her senses and an odd stillness in the air. What he was doing dawned on her a moment later when he met her gaze and nodded. Han Fang was ensuring that they wouldn’t be overheard.
“... I’m worried that I’m going to mess up,” Ling Qi replied after a moment’s thought. “I know Xiulan isn’t happy with you right now, and I don’t know if I’m making you look bad by going out with her all the time, especially with a big prize like this.”
Han Jian frowned, cupping his chin in his hand. “I suppose I can see the reasoning there. It’s been… a little difficult between us lately,” he admitted. “I’m trying to give her some space and time to cool down, but I may have overdone it.”
“Maybe a bit,” Ling Qi said dryly. “I don’t really have any right to say anything though,” she added awkwardly. “Is this going to be a problem?”
“No. I’m not going to try and get in the way of my friend’s good fortune, even if she’d like to light my hair on fire at the moment. I’m not going to be that kind of lord,” Han Jian said firmly. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a matter for me to decide. I don’t have any business getting into my vassals’ personal affairs if it’s not affecting their duties.”
Ling Qi nodded, relieved. “Alright. I guess it was a little silly to think otherwise, but the more I learn about things…”
“The easier it is to get paranoid about every step,” Han Jian finished ruefully. “I get it. Honestly, there probably will be a few people starting nasty rumors, but you can’t really avoid that, no matter what you do.”
They parted ways soon after that with Han Jian assuring her that he would resume their normal activities soon. That done, Ling Qi headed off to find Xiulan, who she found was on her way back up the mountain. If she had to guess, she would say that Xiulan had gone to the volcanic vent where she had trained with her sister some time ago.
Ling Qi didn’t bother hiding her own energy as she approached the bonfire of qi that Xiulan represented in her senses. She ghosted openly through the canopy of the trees, using the travel as a light agility exercise as she hopped from branch to branch. It became obvious that Xiulan had noticed her as well as the other girl picked up speed to meet her.
Ling Qi dropped down onto the narrow dirt trail that constituted a path on this part of the mountain next to one of the stubby waystones marking distance. Gu Xiulan soon came up the path, wearing a new dress in her usual red shade with azure flames decorating the sleeves and hems.
“You can be kind of troublesome to find,” Ling Qi said lightly, smoothing her mantle. “Are you doing well, Gu Xiulan?”
Her friend smirked and took a prideful pose. “Can you not tell?” she asked, spinning lightly on her heel, making her gown flare out around her legs. “I have refined my perfection further.”
Ling Qi smiled. She wasn’t the only one working hard. Her friend had reached Mid Silver. “Of course,” Ling Qi replied, eyeing her preening friend with amusement. “I guess all of that cake and candy had to go somewhere.”
“Such things are beneath the concern of immortals,” Xiulan huffed, giving her a flat look. “As I have said many times before. Besides, I am not the one pushing the fittings of my gown.”
Ling Qi glanced down despite herself. It was fine. And she was pretty sure this thing readjusted itself… She turned her gaze back to a smug looking Xiulan. “That was mean,” she complained.
“You started it,” her friend replied in an amused tone. She was clearly in a good mood. “I hardly meant insult,” she teased. “Young ladies our age often need their clothes refitted.”
Ling Qi flushed; Xiulan could be cruel at times. Ling Qi was still as lacking in feminine charm as the day she had come to the mountain. The only physical difference was that she wasn’t half starved and had put on a bit of muscle. “Anyway,” she said, changing the subject, “I wanted to extend you an offer.”
“Oh, what kind of offer?” Xiulan asked, slipping easily into a more serious posture. “I heard you were hunting for something or another. Do you require aid?”
Ling Qi held back a grimace. It looked like she needed to practice her subtlety if people had already figured out her general action. “Not quite. I have the location of a trial. And I would like you to accompany me for it.”
Gu Xiulan blinked, a look of genuine surprise on her face before she broke into a wide grin. “You truly do never lack for good fortune,” her friend praised, and for once, there was no trace of bitterness or jealousy in her voice. “I would be happy to accompany you.”
That was as Ling Qi expected. The next part was more difficult. “... I should let you know that you won’t have to worry about scheduling conflicts. I already let Han Jian know.”
Xiulan’s smile slipped, and Ling Qi saw a quite literal spark of unhappiness in her eyes. “Is that so. I suppose I am glad it will not be an issue.” Her tone was studiously neutral.
“I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to cause either of you problems,” Ling Qi said earnestly, meeting Xiulan’s gaze steadily. “You know I don’t really get all of the political stuff.”
Xiulan still had an air of irritation, but she nodded. “You are… not wrong,” she agreed grudgingly. “In the future, allow me to speak with him on such matters.”
“Sorry,” Ling Qi said, dipping her head. “I hope the prize makes up for it a little?” She didn’t voice her suspicion that Xiulan might have handled the situation poorly if left on her own.
“It does,” Xiulan said. “... It helps that you made no attempt to conceal your actions.”
“I might be a sneak, but you are one of my closest friends. I’m not going to purposely go behind your back,” Ling Qi replied. “Does sunrise tomorrow sound good to you?”
“It does,” Xiulan said with a sharp nod. “I shall see you there.”
The rest of the evening and night passed quickly enough. Ling Qi continued her efforts to ferret out information on the groups she was investigating, but soon enough, the light of dawn began to brighten the horizon, and she went to meet Xiulan at her home. Unlike her other friends, the noble girl proved more akin to her own habits and was fully prepared by the time she got there.
Taking the mountain paths together, they climbed the mountain, heading toward the treeline where the cavern which held the trial was located according to Fu Xiang’s information. The general area was easy enough to find, but even with explicit instructions, the sense-distorting maze around the cave entrance proved an irritating obstacle. Although they had started their trip before the sun had properly risen, dawn was well underway by the time they made it to the cave and the white stone door buried in its rear wall.
The two of them took a moment to examine the cave, but they found no further traps or surprises. The door was similar enough to the one she had seen with Meizhen, aside from its coloring, so they both placed a hand upon it and channeled their qi.
Unlike the last trial she had been to, they were not immediately whisked away. Instead, the doors ground open, revealing a chamber dimly lit by a single hanging lantern filled with a ghostly blue-green flame. It hung from the center of the ceiling over a pool of clear water and cast the rest of the room in shadow.
While that wasn’t a problem for Ling Qi, she was not so certain of her friend. “Do you need a light?” she asked quietly as she stepped inside to peer around.
“Hardly,” Xiulan sniffed, stepping gingerly inside as well as flames gathered in the palm of her hand, brightening the interior. “I am the light.”
Ling Qi made a sound of acknowledgment and examined the circular chamber. She could easily see the bottom of the pool, which was tiled with jade in varying colors. Two tiles were missing.
“Ling Qi, this way.” She looked up at the sound of Xiulan’s voice. The other girl stood near a flat section of rock on the far side of the room, examining the wall. “Written instructions. How straightforward for an Elder,” the girl mused.
Ling Qi hurried over. Sure enough, when she got within a meter of Xiulan, silvery characters blurred into existence on the previously bare patch of wall.
“Resolve in the face of hardship is the truest virtue,” Gu Xiulan read aloud. “Within dreams of tribulation lie the keys to success.”
“All dreams contain keys, yet not all trials are equal. Choose wisely,” Ling Qi finished. “That… sounds obvious enough. So… this will be like Elder Zhou’s test, you think?”
“Perhaps,” Xiulan mused. “Let us search the other walls. There may yet be more.”
They moved around the perimeter of the room, and as they did, more hidden markings were revealed. This time, there were no words, only symbols. The first was a rearing dragon horse, shrouded by cloud and lightning. The qilin was the symbol of the cloud tribe warlord Ogodei, who had invaded the Empire centuries ago. She remembered that much from her occasional studying.
The second was hideous, a man half twisted into some kind of great cat, his leering, fanged mouth dripping blood. Xiulan thought it resembled tales of the skin-changing warriors of the western barbarians.
The third was a tiny ship on a storm-wracked sea, ghost lights shining from the waters below. Something to do with the northern provinces then, they both agreed.
The last was a stylized white owl with wings outstretched over a black sky, and they both knew what that symbol meant. It was the mark of the Ministry of Integrity. What that meant for a trial, neither could say.
Xiulan recounted Elder Zhou’s third test that Ling Qi had skipped, where the remaining disciples had been pitted against the phantoms of various enemies. It seemed likely that this trial’s dreams would be something similar. Unfortunately, there was no further information to be found nor any means of egress, aside from the door they had entered by.
They would need to make a choice.
“I think that one might be a good place to start,” Ling Qi said, pointing toward the image of the scaled spirit beast. “We still don’t know what these tests will entail, but this one should at least take place on familiar ground, right?”
Gu Xiulan hummed thoughtfully, eyes flicking from one symbol to the next. “I suppose so. It is somewhat irritating that my home is the only region of the Empire unrepresented,” she added, frowning.
“That is a little strange,” Ling Qi said consideringly. She didn’t particularly understand why. “Maybe the Elder who crafted this trial isn’t familiar with the east?”
“Perhaps,” Xiulan replied, shaking her head as she turned toward the image of the dragon horse. “In any case, some practice against the foes we will be expected to face cannot go amiss.”
Ling Qi nodded, glad they could agree on the first step without trouble. “Now, we just need to activate it. Do you think we should just touch it?” She stepped closer to the faintly luminescent symbol. Ling Qi hadn’t found any visible formations markings in the chamber despite her best efforts.
“As simple as that is, it seems so,” her friend said as she stepped up beside her. “There is nothing else to…” The image rippled as Xiulan’s fingers brushed across it and dissolved into mist, revealing two circles of characters so dense that they at first appeared as simple black rings. Even squinting, Ling Qi could barely make out the individual characters.
“I suppose that answers that question,” Ling Qi said dryly, for above the hand-sized circle was a single glowing line of silver script. It read simply: ‘Here begins the dream of storms.’
She shared a look with Xiulan, and then the two of them placed their hands within the offered circles.
Everything went black.