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Ling Qi soon fell into a new routine of training and cultivation. With the aid of Elder Jiao’s lessons, Ling Qi’s cultivation of the neglected Argent Mirror Art began to progress again. As she learned to channel qi through her mortal senses, its lessons grew clearer. By taking those same weaves and turning them inward on herself, she could ward herself from foreign qi attempting to infiltrate her system to deceive or debilitate. This Tranquil Rebuke technique could, in some circumstances, even retaliate against such attempts.

In turn, this self-awareness and her training with Meizhen fed into her cultivation of the Sable Crescent Step art. More and more, it was growing easier to channel dark qi through her legs and spine without losing her focus, and she was on the cusp of being able to utilize her Crescent’s Grace technique even during the day. The dense water and dark qi of the Black Pool where they sparred certainly didn’t hurt.

Even ignoring her arts, there were benefits to personal lessons with Elder Jiao. Although the Elder’s manner was irritating and his utter lack of praise for her efforts frustrating, she was learning. She learned how to pick out a dozen visual details at a glance and parse the sounds, smells, and feel of natural qi. She was even beginning to learn how to better read people through both physical and spiritual tells. Ling Qi just wished Elder Jiao didn’t phrase those lessons as commentary on how easily read and open her own tells were.

It was with these lessons in mind that she continued her investigation into Yan Renshu.

She began her search for information in the market, after having taken a bit of time to disguise herself to avoid any questioning being traced back to her. She had fallen out of practice with such things, but she thought she did a pretty good job. It helped that her usual wear, the Cai-gifted robe, was pretty recognizable these days so spending a handful of red stones on makeup, clothes, and other things had a disproportionate effect.

Her new strategy was to determine if there were any major purchases of cultivation supplies going out into the more wild areas of the mountain. She had exhausted physical trails last week, so this time she was going to try the economic trail. The first few leads turned out to just be older disciples who had chosen to build freestanding homes out of the usual areas, but eventually, she came upon something more suspicious.

There were several shops in the market which were selling semi-regular bulk shipments to disciples that, according to her investigations, should not have been able to afford them, or who had been among those who had run off in the aftermath of Sun Liling’s return. Tracking the disciples’ movements proved difficult however, Most lead to dead ends out in the woods. But she caught a break when some lead her to discover sites that showed signs of being used as temporary camps.

From there, she found further traces leading her deeper into the wilder parts of the mountain until. she managed to catch sight of an early second realm disappearing into the side of a rock formation. Hiding nearby, she witnessed others doing so as well, and in following the disciples that left whatever base was hidden behind the rock illusion, she heard the name of Yan Renshu on their lips.

Her first urge was to immediately slip inside, but she restrained herself. As galling as it was to stop so close to her goal, she was wary of going into enemy territory alone. She hadn’t truly suffered a loss yet, and she wasn’t eager to find out what it was like.

She managed to pick up a bit more about the base she had found from watching the comings and goings. There were, from the looks of it, around ten to fifteen disciples residing there, most of which seemed to be production students, talisman crafters in particular. Her fingers itched at the loot that must be inside such a place, unprotected by the rules of the market.

However, much to her frustration, she could not confirm whether Yan Renshu himself was inside.

All too soon, the time for her lessons with the Elder drew near, and she had to withdraw. As Sun Liling and her allies remained stubbornly hidden, Ling Qi would continue observing and investigating Yan Renshu’s forces in the afternoons to follow.

She was a bit nervous about today’s lessons. She would be turning in the formations workbook the Elder had assigned her, and given the number of problems she had failed to solve, she wasn’t feeling confident about it.

That feeling only grew as she sat stiffly in one of the plush seats lining the room as Elder Jiao paged lazily through the book. She was certain he was doing it on purpose to wind her up; there was no way the man really needed that much time to examine her work. She kept her gaze on her own lap rather than on the room around her; with the exception of the painting of Xin, the decorations changed every day, and today, the hangings depicted disturbing images of twisted, misshapen spirits against backdrops of stars and disquieting underground vistas that hurt her eyes to look at.

Minutes ticked by in silence, and she could do little but endure and think. Su Ling had spoken to her earlier this morning, asking if she would be training at the vent. She was happy to find one of her friends seeking her out for once, and even more glad to have one of her training partners back. She was looking forward to spending time with her after this lesson.

“Your technical proficiency is somewhat lacking.” The Elder’s dry voice shook her from her thoughts. “And I cannot call any of your solutions, such as they are, inspired. Nor can I find among your work any particular specialization.” His tone was neutral and bored. “What in the world do you want?”

She hunched her shoulders defensively. “My apologies for the penmanship. I will take more time in the future,” she responded, even though she had taken more time than usual. “I’m afraid I do not know how to answer such a broad question.” A bit of irritation slipped in despite her best efforts, and she winced out how snippy her words sounded.

He scoffed, but thankfully, did not seem offended. When she chanced a glance upward, she thought he actually looked amused.

“Then consider the context of my words, child,” he said, making the book vanish from his hands in a swirl of shadow. “What do you seek from the formation arts? I would hope you are not wasting my time here. Your skill is sufficient for everyday minutiae already.”

“Honored Elder,” she began carefully. “I admit, most of my interest is in breaking and bypassing formations rather than crafting them. You recall the bags I showed you the first day?”

“I do. I am hardly senile yet,” Elder Jiao said dryly, leaning back against the wall where he sat on the divan. “Is that truly all you want? Do you find the formation arts so uninteresting?” he asked, raising one hairless brow.

“Not as such,” she replied, picking her words carefully. Ling Qi was wary of the attention he was giving her and the slight undercurrent of danger in the air. “They are versatile and useful, but nothing I have been able to acquire is useful in the immediate sense. I just have so many things to do that spending time learning individual arrays seems…”

He regarded her coolly before snorting. “Well, not an unexpected answer. The sort of arrays available in the archive are hardly the sort of thing to compete against the ability to shoot lightning from one’s eyes.”

Ling Qi blinked. “Is there an art like that in the archive?”

“I would not suggest it,” he said airily. “Very unstable, and difficult to aim. It can give the user rather terrible migraines as well.” He flicked his sleeve dismissively. “The formation arts are a thing of infinite complexity… but its masters are not prone to sharing.”

“So, the arrays in the archives...” Ling Qi reasoned out slowly. “They’re just the things everyone knows, aren’t they?”

“Quite so,” Elder Jiao said with a chuckle. “Formations that are used so commonly that no one is going to hide them. That is not to say that you cannot advance in the art using those materials however. Can you tell me how?”

Ling Qi’s expression soured. “... You have to create them yourself, don’t you? By using the primers available.”

“Or convince a master to teach you, yes,” Elder Jiao agreed. “I will inform you now that I have no inclination to do so.”

Ling Qi smiled bitterly. The reminder that these were limited training sessions was hardly welcome. “Of course, Honored Elder,” she replied, inclining her head. “I would be happy to receive your insights into the foundations of the art.”

He eyed her consideringly then flicked his billowing sleeve again. This time, she had to hastily raise her hands to catch the scroll and brush case he had tossed at her. “Then pay close attention, child. I will not repeat myself.”

Ling Qi hastily moved to unroll the blank scroll and prepare herself to take notes. She absolutely would not waste this.

Elder Jiao was, for all his irreverence, obviously an expert in formations. She could barely keep up with his words on the interactions between the basic characters and the functions of their components, as well as the ways in which the characters could be altered in order to nullify or bypass their effects.

For the next few hours, there was no sound except that of his voice and her brush, and numbers and characters danced behind her eyes by the time she staggered out of the cave. His words had given her inspiration though, and she fell upon the bags the moment she got home.

With a new eye for the difficulty of the ‘locks’, she was able to quickly divide the more difficult ones from the less secure containers, allowing her to work on disarming the less lethal countermeasures. The first bag opened easily but was useless, containing only small curiosities like strings of beads, a lock of dark brown hair, a polished bone hairpin, and other such things. No talismans, elixirs, or anything else useful.

The next bag contained a rather large amount of crow bones, which was creepy but equally useless.

Only on the third did she find anything useful. The bag had three stoppered clay vials full of liquid, two of them airy and light and the third thick and black. Ling Qi could tell they were potent elixirs at a glance. At the bottom of the bag, wrapped in leather, lay a book with a pale white cover. It was full of text that she could make neither heads nor tails of. The characters were crude and blocky, completely unlike the Imperial script.

Unfortunately, her efforts ended there. The ‘locks’ on the final bag stymied her, proving frustratingly unbreakable in their construction. Still, it was not a bad haul.

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