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Unfortunately, her free time was still pretty limited. Taking Zhengui out to hunt and play was still time-consuming. He was growing quickly and getting close to reaching the late first realm. Ling Qi was anticipating the day when she could safely dematerialize him indefinitely, allowing him to come with her wherever she went.

Once he hit peak first realm though, she would have to help him prepare a proper nest. Snake-tortoises could apparently hibernate for upward of a month on their breakthrough to the second realm. That was something to worry about later. For now, she simply continued teaching him on being a patient and sneaky hunter. Zhengui was eager to please her and took to the lessons well. Mostly. He still got distracted gnawing on tree roots while digging sometimes, despite his serpentine half’s protests.

Spirit rearing aside, the second half of her week’s lessons with the Elder proved much less stressful but also less interesting. Xin had stopped popping in by that point, and the next subject she requested tutoring in, after expending the Sect Points to pick up the successor art to her first art, Zephyr’s Breath, didn’t seem to interest the Elder.

It didn’t stop him from making it hell for her though because of course it didn’t. She was left on her own in a steep ravine and told to follow the path to the end while hitting the targets he would present to her. What the Elder didn’t say was that his targets, flickering, shadowy things shaped like humans, would be shooting back. The shadow missiles stung and bruised, even through her defenses, and she found herself having to rapidly adapt and learn their ranges and patterns, just to avoid getting pelted into the ground.

Which she kind of did the first time, and the second… and the third.

As the techniques were mostly improvements upon techniques in the Zephyr’s Breath art, she found herself rapidly improving in the use of the Fleeting Zephyr successor art.

After she reached the end of the course the first time, the difficulty only redoubled. In order to pass the course, she now had to command and lead ‘allied’ constructs without loss. It forced her to further master the Fleeting Zephyr art, especially the new enhancement technique Encircling Winds, which allowed her allied constructs to quickly put down a target enemy, and On the Wind, which called upon the wind to help speed the steps of herself and her ‘team’ in their escape of the course.

By the time the week was nearing its end, Ling Qi was feeling quite wrung out. Su Ling and Li Suyin were busy that afternoon, the latter having secluded herself for breakthrough, and the former spending the afternoon in the archive to research and select her new sword art after being satisfied with her base swordsmanship skills.

With Meizhen busy as welland Gu Xiulan still absent, Ling Qi was left with surprisingly little to do. She spent some time simply puttering around the house, idly picking out melodies on her flute, but restlessness and lack of inspiration eventually drove her out for a walk with Zhengui snoozing away in his dematerialized state.

Her directionless stroll took her across the mountain, eventually turning toward the area dedicated to the pavilions and smaller meeting places. It was surprisingly busy, and she soon found herself drifting along to see what was going on.

As it turned out, there was a construction project at the pavilion where the council meetings took place. A dozen or so disciples wearing Cai’s colors were at work around and within the pavilion, some with chisels and brushes and others with shovels and stakes. The commotion had drawn a crowd.

Observing from the edge of the clearing, Ling Qi grew curious. While she did not recognize most of the disciples in question, she did spot Xuan Shi strolling from one workstation to the next, his jangling ring staff tapping out a rhythm on the stone floor. Pausing at a workstation, Xuan Shi spoke quietly to the disciple there. The other boy hastily bowed his head to Xuan Shi and returned to his chiseling at the tiles with much more care than before.

Ling Qi approached, strolling across the unseen line that the crowd seemed reluctant to pass. A couple of the working disciples looked up, and one irritably turned toward her about to say something, only to freeze when their eyes met. Instead of speaking, the boy flushed and hastily bowed, stepping out of her way.

“Brother Xuan!” she called, remembering the odd formality the boy used, as she reached the bottom of the pavilion steps. “I see Lady Cai has you working hard!” Ling Qi felt a twinge of guilt; she had heard the boy had a rough time during Sun Liling’s recent attack, but despite how helpful he had been to her previously, she hadn’t spared him a thought. At least he looked fine now.

“Sister Ling,” Xuan Shi greeted, dipping his head slightly in her direction, his wide conical hat bobbing with the motion. “The Lady grants us tasks in equal measure to our ability and no more.”

“I guess so,” Ling Qi said thoughtfully as she mounted the steps to reach level with him. “How have you been? I’ve been meaning to stop by, but things got busy.” It was a little lie, but a harmless one.

He regarded her silently, most of his expression concealed by his hat and high collar, then glanced away, giving a nearby disciple who had paused to listen to them a sharp look. “I am unbowed. Though a storm may lash the shore, the island remains. Patience brings ultimate victory,” he said with quiet surety. “What purpose guides your steps, Sister Ling?”

So he wasn’t too troubled by the loss and was already planning his reprisal. Ling Qi reached the center of the pavillion, drawing aside Xuan Shi. “Just a whim,” she admitted. “I was out for a stroll, looking for something to inspire a song, and caught sight of your work. I guess Lady Cai wants to make sure our meeting place is secure?”

“A throne must be radiant and solid as the mountain rock,” he said agreeably. “Theatre sways the hearts of the unworthy,” he added in a much quieter tone. Going by the stillness in the air, she was certain that only she had heard that last statement. A useful technique.

“So it does,” she mused. “I am glad you’re doing well. You’ve been nothing but helpful to me, and I’m afraid I haven’t done much to pay that back.”

“Sister Ling’s concern is appreciated like a fine moon shining over rough seas,” Xuan Shireplied, and she thought she saw the corners of his odd eyes crinkle for a moment with a smile. “There is no debt. Generosity is a virtue.”

Ling Qi almost snorted, giving him an arch look. “Come on now. We’re cultivators. Isn’t everything a competition?”

“Perhaps,” he said, tapping the butt of his staff on the stone. “If so, a generous spirit is the mark of the strong, is it not?”

She gave him a measuring look but nodded. “I suppose so. Still, I’m free for the moment. Did you need any help here?”

He made a thoughtful sound. “Sister Ling is much like a cold sea breeze, finding the tiniest cracks to slip through and chill the home. Perhaps an examination of the arrays with that in mind?”

She blinked, her eyebrows drawing together in consternation. “You were keeping an eye on my practice in the Archives.”

Xuan Shi tipped his hat marginally in her direction. He was definitely smiling now. “Other perspectives remain invaluable. Am I begrudged?”

She let out an unladylike snort. “No, it’s my fault for not guarding my notes,” she said with a huff. “Where do you want me to start?”

The next couple hours passed quickly. Poking holes in the arrays being built was an interesting diversion, and some part of her enjoyed the grumbling of the disciples who had to adjust and fix the formations.

Xuan Shi was an agreeable sort, and in doing this, she felt less of a burden of debt toward him, so it was time well spent. Even without that though, she wouldn’t mind speaking with him in the future. Perhaps she could prod him for advice on getting Zhengui to develop his abilities. His “Xuan” family name made it pretty obvious that he was associated with “xuanwu” spirits, of which Zhengui was one.

As the pavilion faded away behind her, Ling Qi’s thoughts turned to her plans for the evening. She had made her preparations for venturing into Yan Renshu’s base, warned Meizhen to raise the alarm if she was not back by morning, and even borrowed the girl’s spare storage ring. She had also fully scouted out the surroundings beforehand and gotten a feel for the patterns of activity at the base. There was nothing further to do but execute the plan.

... She really needed to get a better ring of her own though. Meizhen’s spare storage ring had ten times the space hers did. The thought of filling it with loot warmed her heart.

Her infiltration began simply enough. The defenses at the doorway were keyed to a token the disciples kept on their person, so her first task would be to snag one from the disciple going out on an evening supply run. He would be out for at least an hour, giving her a good window to work with. She had figured out which of the errand boys had storage rings, which she wouldn’t be able to steal the token from, and she had chosen tonight for her infiltration because the boy tasked with the evening supply run was one of the disciples who didn’t have a storage ring.

Was there an art that would allow her to steal from a storage ring? Surely there had to be.

The first part of her plan went off without a hitch. After Elder Jiao’s training, slipping her hand into the boy’s pocket and retrieving the token as she passed him on the market street was a trivial task. Vanishing into the darkness of the forest was likewise an easy. It took mere minutes to return to the hidden entrance, and with the token in hand, she passed through. The sheer cliff face gave way to a smooth tunnel, likely carved with an earth art given the lack of marks from tools.

She did not linger in the doorway, exposed as it was. With Crescent’s Grace and Formless Shade techniques active, she darted down the hall in a flash of black, slipping into the nearest side room. It was a storage room from the looks of it, a place to put the products that the suppliers would sell at the market. She did not find anything of great interest with a cursory search. No talismans or pills she herself would use. She did dematerialize a few choice pills into Meizhen’s ring anyway for later resale.

Her exploration then began in earnest. The cramped complex was not especially large and consisted largely of work rooms and a few housing areas. There were a bit less than ten disciples present, so she tried to avoid stealing anything too obvious.

No matter the urge to steal the large pill furnace in one of the rearmost rooms. Su Ling had indicated that those were very valuable, right?

She tore through the base like a sticky-fingered hurricane while searching for any signs of Yan Renshu. Ling Qi tried to avoid distraction, but there was only so much she could do. Minor pills, talismans, and stones abounded, and in one room, she even found carefully organized parcels containing the required goods for several basic gathering Sect Missions. Those, she shoved into her ring, not even bothering to fight the grin stretching her lips.

She did manage to (mostly) stay on target though, and among the treasures, she also found information. Missives to this base’s leader, one of Yan Renshu’s direct subordinates, proved the most helpful. It was clear the boy was a careful sort, but hints of inexperience showed. He lacked the true paranoia of those who stood to lose everything. Ling Qi was able to secure the notes that his subordinate had kept on the symbols and cyphers they used for their meetings with Yan Renshu. With that in hand, she could track down the main base.

As long as she struck before he had a chance to change things anyway. Although, even if he did, knocking over this base alone would starve his group of resources since it was his primary stone farming location.

And she was certainly going to report this place to Cai Renxiang.

After she left the base with her new pill furnace of course.

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