The trial cave was not as she remembered it.
When Ling Qi arrived back at the site the next day, she was not terribly surprised to find that the maze around it had been dispersed. However, she did find herself stopping to stare when she reached the entrance and found not an empty, dimly lit cavern, but instead, what seemed like a nobleman’s sitting room. The dim lantern hanging over the pond remained, but now it cast its light over plush rugs and wall hangings that concealed the rough stone walls. Cushioned chairs and polished wooden tables holding braziers of smoldering incense lined the walls, and across from the door was an ostentatious divan seemingly carved from a single massive piece of white jade cushioned with acid green silk padding covered in gleaming embroidery.
The air was smokey and thick. She was certain that it would have left her coughing mere months ago, but for now, her breathing was controlled enough that it did little more than make her eyes water. She peered around carefully but saw no sign of the Elder yet. She very carefully did not let her eyes linger too long at the scenes of… revelry depicted on some of the wall hangings that interspersed the more normal scenes.
Instead, she found her eyes were drawn to the painting which hung over the divan. It depicted a familiar red-eyed woman, peering back over her shoulder at the viewer with a mischievous smile on her lips. In the painting, her gown was falling from her shoulders and her hair loose and unbound, but she could still recognize Xin, the spirit that had given her the arts in Elder Zhou’s test which had carried her so far.
The emotion in the red eyes made the painting seem almost alive. Maybe it was. It wouldn’t be the strangest thing she had seen since she had joined the world of the Immortals. It was distinctly uncomfortable though. Like Meizhen at the lake uncomfortable. That wasn’t the kind of look she wanted to be on the receiving end of.
Ling Qi carefully removed her shoes before actually stepping inside the ‘room’ and finding a seat on the floor. She had an inkling that Elder Jiao was not a man who had a great interest in propriety, but this was beyond her expectations. In the end, the Elder’s foibles didn’t matter. She still had to seize this opportunity with both hands.
It seemed she would have to wait though, so Ling Qi closed her eyes and began to meditate, beginning on the next stage of qi exercises for her Thousand Ring Fortress art. If she had managed to achieve the second pulse before the trial, she and Gu Xiulan might have been able to hold out long enough to win that encounter with the jungle barbarians. For all that she had been given a pass, Ling Qi was certain she had made mistakes. While Xiulan had gone too far in the opposite direction of conserving qi, she should have been more aggressive and less afraid to drop her flute once her effects were set up. As the flute was now, it was nigh impervious to harm unless she was facing an opponent in a higher realm.
Ling Qi reviewed the battle in her thoughts as she cycled wood natured qi, pushing it out through the channels in her body to suffuse the air and soak into the ground beneath the rich carpeting. She wasn’t sure how long she spent in meditation, but eventually, she felt a subtle chill and a feeling of presence, causing her eyes to snap open.
“Well, at least you are not wholly blind,” Elder Jiao commented dryly from where he now sat, or rather lay, leaning against the arm of the divan. His bald head was bare today, and he wore robes in an absolutely hideous shade of yellow that hurt her eyes to look at for too long.
“Greetings, Elder Jiao,” Ling Qi said hastily, clasping her hands to bow respectfully to the older man. “Thank you very much for granting me the honor of your time.”
He looked down at her with a neutral expression and then sighed, waving one bony hand dismissively. “Yes, I think that will be quite enough simpering. Get off the floor and take a proper seat, girl. The chairs are not entirely for decoration.”
“Of course, Honored Elder,” Ling Qi agreed, rising quickly to her feet and moving to do as instructed. She settled herself in the nearest seat nervously. She still wasn’t comfortable with formality, and Elder Jiao’s lax attitude made it hard to judge what was appropriate behavior.
The Elder watched her, a spark of amusement in his odd eyes. “You have decided what you desire to be instructed in for this week, I hope?” he asked, turning his gaze to study his fingernails, seemingly losing interest in her.
“I had hoped to receive your instruction in the ways of improving my perception of the world,” Ling Qi said, inclining her head respectfully. “More specifically, I have had trouble with unraveling the trails and secrets left behind by my enemies and was hoping for your insight in investigating such matters.”
He looked up with a hint of interest. “Is that so? Not quite what I expected, but then again, I suppose you are playing at being half a spymaster for that Cai child, aren’t you?”
“I am honored by your attention,” Ling Qi said. “Yes, I have been performing a few small tasks for Lady Cai. I have my own interests to seek out as well.” She considered her next words. The Elder was a moon cultivator with an aspect of the New Moon bound as his companion so she added, “The Grinning Moon has given me a task.”
“I see,” he said, not sounding particularly impressed. “And your second request?”
Ling Qi hesitated then drew the bundle of bags she had looted from the barbarian shaman out of her ring. “I humbly request instruction in the formation arts, so that I may break the seals upon these. The script is very complex, and I worry that my current skill is insufficient.”
The Elder squinted at the unassuming hide bags in her lap before his expression soured. “You were one of those involved in that little mess, weren’t you? I suppose it speaks well of your luck that you are sitting here today and not lying buried in our new lake to be,” he said irritably. “Junior Sister Ying would not have allowed you to keep that prize if she sensed anything truly dangerous within.”
Ling Qi looked at the man in consternation. “Junior Sister Ying?” she muttered under her breath. Elder Jiao appeared much younger than Elder Ying, although his qi was near non-existent to her senses.
Unsurprisingly, the Elder heard her and let out an amused snort. “Girl, if you still believe the appearance of age means anything, you have not been paying attention. Shi Ying looks as she does because she has always been a nosy old woman, even as an unblossomed girl. I too remain as I always have, a refined gentleman of impeccable taste and charm.”
It was a true monument to her self-control that Ling Qi managed to keep her expression utterly neutral in the wake of that statement. Her gaze did not flick down to the monstrosity of a minister’s robe the man wore. Not even for a moment.
The Elder could probably sense the gist of her thoughts though, given the look he gave her during the uncomfortable silence that stretched in the aftermath of his words.
“Hmph. Children these days,” he grumbled. Then he was standing in front of her, less than a meter away. She did not see him move or even feel a fluctuation of qi. He simply changed positions from one moment to the next. “Put that away, and come along then, girl. I shall be assigning you some coursework to determine your formations skill for future lessons, so we will begin with honing your observational skills.”
“Of course, Elder Jiao,” Ling Qi said, hurrying to stand up and dismiss the bags back into her ring before following after the older man already striding toward the entrance of the cave.
In the hours that followed, she was forced to strain her senses and recall details far in excess of what she normally noticed. Remembering the number of leaves on a particular branch or the exact placement of stones on the side of the road was merely the beginning. To an outsider, it might seem like she was simply following the man on an easy stroll through the upper mountain, answering a constant stream of questions, but to her, it quickly grew painful as she was forced to channel qi through her eyes and ears for far longer than before until her head throbbed and her dantian grew empty.
Trying to track and catalogue every detail of her environment left her feeling bleary and exhausted by the time the Elder waved her off and vanished. He left her with a thick workbook full of formations problems and questions to be completed by the day after next. ... Apparently, they would be adding her qi senses to the training efforts tomorrow.
Ling Qi spent much of the evening that followed working through the complex and difficult workbook, stopping only to meditate and cycle qi through the exercises within the Argent Mirror jade slip as she incorporated the insights gained during the day’s exercises with Elder Jiao.
As the sun rose over the horizon, she set aside her work for other pursuits. She couldn’t afford to sit inside and study all day. Zhengui’s bottomless appetite saw to that. Given his growth and restlessness, she had decided to start giving him a more active role in acquiring his food, but she found herself unsure of how best to do that due to a certain mismatch in their abilities.
There really wasn’t any getting around it. Zhengui was very slow and lacking in agility. He was also very easily distracted, which brought them to the current situation.
“Don’t go running off like that,” she scolded, crouching in front of the snake-tortoise.
“Sorry, Big Sister.” Gui gazed up at her with doleful green eyes.
“Wanted the sparkly bug,” Zhen grumbled, not looking up at her. “Could have caught it.”
“I’m sure you could have,” Ling Qi said evenly, keeping a straight face. “But this forest is dangerous. You have to stay close when we’re hunting, okay?” They were down in the forest at the base of the mountain. There was a population of wood-aligned hares down here, and their cores made for good eating for the little spirit, even if the meat tasted like wet tree bark to her.
Surprisingly, that wasn’t the end of it. His serpentine head flicked its tongue at her. “Big Sister is boring. She doesn’t let us do anything.”
“Rude!” The tortoise head glared up at his other half. “Don’t talk to Mo… Big Sister like that!”
She watched the two heads bicker with some bemusement. That was the first time Zhengui had talked back to her in any way. She wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Zhen was the more brash of the two, and she had strong suspicions that most of the trouble her spirit got into was instigated by the serpent. Well, not all of it. When it came to nibbling on random things, Gui was usually the guilty one.
Ling Qi hesitated to scold him further though. It was true that she had brought him out here to participate, but her lack of certainty as to what his role should be had left her doing everything herself. She glanced briefly around the small sun-dappled meadow they were in.
“Well,” she considered, drawing out the word to get their attention. “If you’re bored, I suppose I should give you some work too.” She recalled the scorched divots left throughout the house garden, and a plan began to form. She needed to test his abilities after all.
Gui regarded her with rapt attention and Zhen with reluctant interest as she continued. “If you want to help your Big Sister hunt, you're going to have to be able to hide like me. Do you think you can do that?”
Zhengui scuffed his stubby paws against the dirt, both sets of eyes looking uncertain. “... Can’t reach the branches to be like Big Sister,” Gui said, sounding embarrassed and worried. He was afraid to disappoint.
“Too heavy and slow,” Zhen scoffed. “I could,” he added proudly.
Ling Qi huffed and reached out, brushing her fingers over Gui’s eye ridge affectionately, even as she fixed Zhen with a stern look. “You’ll need to work together,” she admonished. “I know who's been digging up the flowerbeds to get at the roots,” she continued lightly, drawing guilt from the tortoise. “So I want you to use that skill to bury yourself into the dirt. I’ll chase the food back here, and then you,” she said, pointing to the black-scaled serpent, “are going to catch it. Does that work for you?”
Gui pawed at the dirt thoughtfully, but Zhen gave an excited hiss of agreement. She stayed behind long enough to watch Zhengui dig. Gui’s efforts were fueled more by qi than his little stubby feet, but it still took only a minute or so for him to hide himself in the tall grass with his shell sticking out of the dirt, looking like no more than a particularly jagged stone.
She smiled when she felt a fluttering, hesitant fluctuation in his qi. Zhengui was trying to ape the way she suppressed her own energy when sneaking around. She thought a simple reassurance to him then set off to circle the clearing to flush out their prey while keeping an eye out for anything actually dangerous approaching. It took some time, but she eventually found what she was looking for, an oversized hare with earth-toned fur nibbling away at some wild plant or another. Ling Qi could have killed it with one shot from her bow, but that wasn’t the point of this exercise.
Instead, her arrow thudded into the dirt beside it, and she flared her qi, sending the beast running in the desired direction. Ling Qi followed along lazily, slipping through the branches silently and putting down additional shots as necessary to guide the beast. Shortly thereafter, it erupted from the brush into the meadow, and a final shot sent it swerving toward Zhengui’s position.
The hare let out a high-pitched yelp as the loose dirt parted and a black shadow shot out, Zhen’s fangs sinking into the rabbit. Ling Qi almost winced at the noise the rabbit made as it convulsed, steam rising from where the fangs bit into its flesh. She nocked an arrow as the hare jerked free and kicked Zhen in the head.
But there was no need for her to act. The hare crashed to the ground, its leg bound by a writhing tree root. This time, the serpent got it by the throat, and that was that.
Zhengui erupted from the dirt with a puff of dust and detritus, trundling excitedly toward her even as Zhen let out a displeased hiss, his lower half dragging him away from his still twitching prey. “I got it, Big Sister!” he sent, accompanied by a happy chirp.
Ling Qi dropped down from the tree, grinning as she moved to crouch in front of him and pat his dusty shell. “That was a good trick,” she praised. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
“It was my venom that killed it,” Zhen scoffed in displeasure. The thought had a slight taste of a childish whine to it.
“You did a good job too. You’re such a tough little guy,” Ling Qi soothed, stroking under the serpent’s chin in the way that she knew he liked.
Zhen nuzzled against her fingers, and his tongue tickled her skin. “It was easy,” Zhen bragged.
“Can we eat now?” Gui asked, looking up at her with hunger in his bright eyes. “Big Sister will get the core?”
“I will,” she reassured, glancing at the kill. “Just hold on while I divide it up for you, alright?” Ling Qi would have to encourage Zhengui to keep trying new techniques, but it seemed she had hit on a method for including him in hunts.
Once she had let Zhengui eat his fill, she took him back home to rest. At just over a month since his hatching, he still tired out relatively quickly. Of course, with the advancement in his cultivation, she had a feeling that wouldn’t last long. He was growing more energetic by the day, and he would soon reach the late stage of the first realm. At that point, she would start bringing him with her, stored away in her dantian.