Han Jian seemed exhausted when Ling Qi finally tracked him down on the road that led to the town at the base of the mountain. Surprisingly, he was without his cousin’s presence today and with only Heijin to keep him company. The tiger cub had grown, now standing as high as Han Jian’s knees as he prowled along beside him.
Despite his downcast expression and air of distraction, Han Jian didn’t miss her approach. Ling Qi had made no effort to hide herself.
“Han Jian!” she called, raising her hand in greeting as she crossed the road to meet him. She spared only an absent glance to check on the position of the heavily laden wagon trundling along the center.
The boy stopped, his light armor clanking slightly at the change in momentum. Heijin stopped as well, although he didn’t look at her as his attention was rather focused on the horse drawing the cart she had just passed. She was surprised at first that the tiger cub’s presence didn’t panic the other animals on the road, but when she focused, she couldn’t actually read the cub’s cultivation or feel his spirit. Well, tigers were ambush predators, she supposed.
“Ling Qi.” Han Jian’s greeting pulled her attention back to him as she came to a stop a polite distance away. “You made it through the latest mess unscathed I see,” he said politely, although his smile seemed more forced compared to usual.
“Mostly,” Ling Qi admitted. Her ring finger was still sore, and her side a little tender. “It looks like you didn’t suffer too much yourself?” she asked tentatively. After she had finished receiving Elder Jiao’s guidance on developing Argent Mirror more, she had reviewed the book and picked out the real contracts. Once she had torn those particular pages in half and stuffed them back between the covers, she had delivered the book and an explanation to Cai.
The heiress hadn’t wasted any time in grandstanding in the main plaza and denouncing Yan Renshu, which had kicked off another round of frenzied conflict. Han Jian had been the one keeping order on the boys’ side since Gan Guangli had lead the more offensive efforts against the other factions.
“Personally, maybe,” Han Jian said wryly. “Things got rough once Sun Liling came out of hiding.”
“I heard about that,” Ling Qi said slowly, folding her arms as she often saw Meizhen do. “Nothing clear though. Did everything go alright?” She had been rather focused on surreptitiously keeping an eye on Su Ling and Li Suyin to make sure nothing untoward happened.
“Depends on your definition of alright,” Han Jian said with a tired shrug. “Kang Zihao showed up to denounce us as villains and steal some of Renshu’s people. I could handle him, but it looks like Chu Song’s group and some of the other older disciples have fallen in with him too.” Ling Qi was impressed that Han Jian had gotten that confident. She supposed he had reached Late Yellow though. “Ji Rong broke Fang’s jaw,” he added with a scowl.
Ling Qi winced; that sounded rough. “I’m sure he’ll get him next time,” she said encouragingly. “He’s in the Medicine Hall then?”
“Growing in new teeth takes a little while,” Han Jian said agreeably, his tone at odds with the air of weariness about him.
Silence fell as Han Jian watched the slow flow of traffic and Ling Qi considered what to say. “... Do you know if Xiulan is alright?”
“Does she look alright?” he asked tightly.
“She looks fine,” Ling Qi replied, stressing the middle word. She could already tell that her friend hated the scars on her face.
“That isn’t what I meant, and you know it,” Han Jian snapped. “One of my oldest friends almost got herself killed. People who are alright don’t do things like that to themselves!” Heijin let out a low growl at his feet, moving to lay down and close his eyes. The haughty cub was oddly reticent
Ling Qi stared at him. “You know what started her acting like that, right?” The trial she had shared with Gu Xiulan was a blow, but it was only the last straw. Ling Qi’s own growth had exacerbated things, but in the end, she knew well enough where the root of the issue lay.
Ling Qi saw a flicker of genuine anger on Han Jian’s face as he turned to her fully. “I couldn’t let her keep believing there could be anything between us. I am not going to be that kind of feckless person anymore,” he said in a low tone. “I was as kind as I could be about it.”
Ling Qi grimaced. “I’m sorry. That was unfair,” she apologized. Shifting her stance uncomfortably, Ling Qi considered the best way to change the subject. “Seeing her like that just…”
“I get it,” Han Jian cut her off with a tired sigh, scrubbing his hand through his short hair. “I am going to go on like things are normal. Xiulan doesn’t want pity, especially from me.”
“That’s probably for the best,” Ling Qi agreed. “Are you going to start doing group exercises again then?”
“It has been a while, hasn’t it?” he mused. “Yeah, I think I will. You still up for it?” Han Jian’s tone was more upbeat, but it still seemed forced.
“Probably. I can make some time,” Ling Qi said. “Has Xiulan showed you the art we got from our trial yet?”
Han Jian raised an eyebrow at her. “No. She ran off right away after it.”
“Ah.” Ling Qi winced. “Well, after we found it…This is the second Argent Art I’ve gotten from a trial, and they seem like they might be a set,” she said slowly, watching his expression. “I have Argent Current and Argent Mirror. Do you happen to have a different one?”
The boy regarded her neutrally but then nodded. “Argent Storm,” he said shortly. “Wind and thunder. It’s a pretty good match for Fang and I,” he continued. “I think I can guess what you’re thinking.”
“Current is a melee art, and Mirror is perception,” she said agreeably. “What does Storm do?”
“It’s a body reinforcement art,” Han Jian answered. “I won’t trade for Current. I would rather speak with Xiulan about that, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course,” Ling Qi replied. “You aren’t opposed though?”
“Not necessarily,” Han Jian said. “We’re competition, but I don’t mind things that benefit us both.”
“I’ll have to think about it as well,” Ling Qi said. “I just wanted to see if you would consider the idea.”
“Fair enough,” he said, stirring from stillness to stride past her, resuming his journey back to the mountain. “We’ll be meeting at the same field next week, if you want to come along.”
“Thanks. I’ll try to make it.” Ling Qi watched his back for a moment before heading towards town herself. She was going to meet up with Su Ling there before they went to the vent. Ling Qi was glad things hadn’t gotten too distant with Han Jian, despite their increasingly diverging schedules.
Ling Qi remained on guard during the next few days, as the aftershocks of the most recent upset died down. Yan Renshu had gone to ground, disappearing entirely, along with a couple of other disciples as far as anyone could tell. It was worrying, and she was certainly going to look into better protections for her home just in case, but for the moment, the issue was resolved.
On the other hand, Sun Liling wasn’t hiding any longer, having set up a veritable fortress built into the cliffs above the treeline on the mountain. Ling Qi had no idea how she had missed that kind of construction going on. It was basically a declaration of war, as if daring Cai Renxiang to come and get her.
Something like that had to be a trap. Happily, Cai Renxiang seemed to be of a similar mind on the matter, since her current efforts did not include assaulting the place. Ling Qi knew things would boil over again soon enough though.
Ling Qi was going to slap the next person she heard whine about Cai’s rule reducing conflict and making people soft.
Such concerns were above her head for the moment. Ling Qi’s training schedule remained exhaustive. She spent mornings training with Meizhen. The sparring was unpleasant but necessary because the best way to cultivate Thousand Ring Fortress was to let her friend pound on her defenses relentlessly. Meizhen’s control of her flying sword had progressed massively, and Ling Qi could now barely keep track of the silvery blur in spars.
In the afternoons, she cultivated with her friends at the vent, clearing the remaining spiritual detritus from her new meridian and helping Su Ling practice with her new sword art. The fox girl had picked out an earth and mountain technique of all things. It was too immobile for Ling Qi’s tastes, but she supposed it was her friend’s choice. Li Suyin was around less often, stopping by when she had free time to study the strange book from the shaman’s bags and chat with Ling Qi. Without sustained focus, they didn’t make much progress on deciphering it, but the time together was still pleasant.
Evenings were consumed by lessons with Elder Jiao. Because she had asked for further help with Argent Mirror and the art of investigation, the Elder had responded by locking her in some kind of dream state which she could only escape by solving the logic puzzles by figuring out the clues in the scenarios presented to her. The longer she took to solve them, the greater the migraine.
Ling Qi had nearly been in tears from the pain on a few occasions, but as much as she despised him in the moment, she could feel her mastery of Argent Mirror growing, and her ability to immediately pick out details from her surroundings improved apace.
Ling Qi’s other goal for the week proved a little more difficult. She had wanted to discuss Zhengui’s growth with Xuan Shi, but the boy was pretty hard to find when he wasn’t working on major projects, or at least when he was busy with less obvious matters than warding the council pavilion.
Zhengui was growing again, often falling asleep either in his kiln or while dematerialized. His physique was going to reach Late Gold any day now, and his spiritual growth was only barely lagging. That just made her more determined to hunt down the cryptic boy because the books she had found in the Archives hadn’t detailed much in regards to a snake-tortoise’s breakthrough hibernation.
It wasn’t until nearly halfway through the week that she managed to track him down, using rumor and sightings from other disciples to follow him down into the lowlands near the mountain. Surprisingly, he wasn’t at a hidden training ground or cultivation site as she had suspected. He wasn’t even cultivating, as far as she could tell.
Xuan Shi sat at the top of a hill, leaned back against the trunk of a large tree, his ring staff laid across his lap. He had a thin book in his hand, although he was already lowering it, having detected her presence by the time she caught a glimpse of him. She had figured startling him would probably be bad for everyone so she hadn’t bothered to stealth.
“Brother Xuan,” she called in greeting from the bottom of the hill, stopping now that she had his attention. “Sorry to interrupt.”
Ling Qi thought she saw his eyes flick back to the book in his hand before they closed. He let out a sigh and began to stand up. “Your apology is without cause. What storm lashes the Outer Sect this day?”
“Nothing like that,” Ling Qi hurried to say. “Everything is still settled.”
He frowned behind his high collar, pausing in brushing off the back of his robe. “I see,” he said slowly. “What ill wind carries you then to break my respite?”
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes, trying to work out if there was an insult there. “I just wanted to talk to you,” she huffed, giving him a reproachful look. “Is that a problem?” She planted her hands on her hips as she looked up at the boy on the hill.
Xuan Shi tapped the butt of his staff on the ground, sending the rings jingling as he looked briefly uncomfortable. “It is not. Forgive my manner, for the days past have worn it thin,” he said evenly, meeting her eyes. “Speak then, Sect Sister, and I will listen.”
Ling Qi nodded, satisfied with the apology, such as it was. “And I am sorry for interrupting your free time. I know it can be hard to find a quiet moment around here,” she said, beginning to ascend the hill to stand on his level. “What were you reading anyway?” she asked, trying to be friendly.
“Nothing of import,” the stocky boy answered roughly. “Merely an idle fancy to calm the nerves.”
She hummed thoughtfully. “Is that so? Something like those books you were reading in the archive? I thought it was a little strange for something like that to be in there.”
“The Voyages flowed from the pen of a late Elder, and few were ever copied,” the boy said, a hint of defensiveness coloring his tone. “Their place is earned.”
“Really?” Ling Qi asked in surprise. An Elder took the time to write out a fiction series? Maybe there was a hidden art in it or something like that. That would explain why Xuan Shi had spent so much time in the Archives on it. “Well, anyway, I don’t want to assume… but you’re familiar with ‘xuan wu’, right?”
“A tale or two may have reached me, I think,” Xuan Shi replied in a perfectly deadpan tone.
“There’s no need for that. I guess you’re aware of Zhengui?” she asked as she reached the top of the hill, feeling the little spirit stir within her, roused by his name.
Xuan Shi’s expression grew incredulous. “You…” He stared at her before shaking his head. “Wordplay is an art all its own, it is true, but…”
“There is nothing wrong with Zhengui’s name,” Ling Qi asserted crossly in a tone that dared him to disagree.
“As you say, Sister Ling,” he said, holding up a hand in apology. “His spirit called to mine, and from there, that knowledge flew north to our kin.”
Ling Qi felt herself tense. “You told your family about Zhengui already?” she asked, alarm clear in her voice.
He frowned at her as he crouched down to pick up his hat. “Have no fear. We will not covet our kin like rabble lusting for treasures,” he reassured. “But I cannot say that Sister Ling has not drawn many eyes.”
She wasn’t sure she liked that. Ling Qi had come as far as she had in part by avoiding attention, but it seemed more and more like that was no longer possible. “Right. Of course. I meant no insult with my words,” she said, regaining her composure.
“True honor requires the polish of millenia. Few have it in this age,” Xuan Shi said simply. “Such caution does not speak ill of you. May I meet the child?”
Ling Qi hesitated but nodded. It was what she had come here for; there was no sense getting cold feet now. She called to Zhengui, who was still dozing inside her dantian, and he quickly materialized in her arms. Bright green eyes blinked sleepily up at her while red ones regarded Xuan Shi warily.
Xuan Shi’s eyebrows rose as he studied the little spirit, leaning closer as he did so. Zhen flicked his tongue at the boy in response, ash leaking from the sides of his mouth. “My senses were not fooled,” the boy mused. “Destruction and growth. You are a unique one, little brother.”
“Smelly salt thing is not my brother,” Zhen hissed haughtily, and Ling Qi was certain she saw Xuan Shi flinch.
“Zhengui, be nice,” Ling Qi said quickly. “I’m sorry. He’s still young.”
“Do not trouble yourself, Sister Ling,” Xuan Shi replied, waving off her concern.
“Big Sister, is it time for dinner yet?” Gui chirped, ignoring the byplay between Xuan Shi and his other head entirely. “I want rabbit today!”
“Soon,” she soothed, patting him on the head. Zhen shot her a pitiful look, but she simply gave him a stern one in return. He hadn’t apologized, so no head pats for him. “I was hoping you could give me some advice on how to help him express his abilities,” she said, turning a sheepish smile toward Xuan Shi.
Ling Qi thought she saw a flicker of some emotion in his neutral regard of Zhengui, but she couldn't quite identify it. “I suppose I do not mind.”
The boy was hard to read, even more so than usual given the way he seemed to clam up after their conversation. Still, she was pretty sure that he was surprised at her tactics and bemused at Zhengui’s digging and ambush strategies.
He did have some useful advice though, even if it seemed that Zhengui’s unique combination of elements stumped him a little. With some effort, Zhen was able to breathe out a short-lived tongue of red-orange flame that stuck and furiously consumed whatever it touched, and Gui was able to repurpose an exercise for taking in earth qi to draw from wood qi, which made his shell glow bright green but seemed to do little else aside from somewhat expanding his awareness.
In regard to Zhengui’s hibernation period, Xuan Shi confirmed that Zhengui himself would know instinctively what he needed. What she would need to provide would be protection around the nest site.
All in all, Xuan Shi was pretty helpful, even if the boy seemed distracted for most of the afternoon. She met up with the boy once more during the week, after Zhengui had emerged from his kiln having grown once more. His shell wasn’t quite a meter long yet, but it was beginning to get close. Xuan Shi seemed confident that she still had a few weeks before the snake-tortoise fell into torpor.
Matters with Elder Jiao were a little more difficult. Once the stressful cultivation of Argent Mirror was done, they moved swiftly on to the second half of her requested lesson plans. It was rather less childish than the last exercise. Elder Jiao simply sent her to a heavily locked and trapped room which steadily sapped her qi, forcing her to try and escape before the drain knocked her unconscious.
It gave her a new appreciation for the many, many options she had because of her ability to fit through spaces too small for her body, but it also taught her that her abilities were not failproof. She couldn’t exactly disable snares located in spaces too small for her to materialize in after all.
Ling Qi could feel her understanding of Sable Crescent Step growing by the hour as she worked through the ever-changing gauntlet. She was nearing mastery of the next stage and the technique therein.
But her lessons with the Elder would be coming to an end soon. She would have to carefully consider carefully what she wished to spend them on in her last week of tutoring from Elder Jiao.