Thoughts of the future continued to niggle at her as she went on to meet up with Gu Xiulan and the others from Golden Fields. Today was the first day the group would be back together for training again.
It was… more than a little awkward. Gu Xiulan practically radiated defiance and pride while Fan Yu and Heijin were subdued at best. Han Jian put on an upbeat front, but she could tell that he could feel the tension too. Han Fang was as inscrutable as ever, though he had picked up a few faint scars over his lips.
Nevertheless, after Han Jian lead them through a bit of practice to ensure that they could still work together, they set off to explore the eastern foothills.
Ling Qi got quite a bit of practice with her Fleeting Zephyr successor arte, bolstering everyone’s agility with the wind and speeding their steps. Doing it for so many people at once really helped her cultivate her control of the art. Of course, the exceedingly potent medicinal energy burning in her dantian was quite the distraction, but even that helped her hone her focus. Her core stretched and pulsed, growing with each rotation of energy.
The exploration itself had mixed results. They didn’t find much of interest, but her share of the cores gained from hunting would go a long way toward keeping Zhengui fed this week. The travel was good for the little spirit as well. Although he tired out quickly, letting him out when they stopped to clean their kills or poke around an area more closely gave him some time to stretch his legs.
The hunt was stressful. Xiulan snapped easily at Fan Yu and Han Fang, which put both boys in a bad mood. Even Heijin was hesitant to approach her. Ling Qi left feeling rather more weary than the physical exertion would account for.
Luckily, she had time for some actual relaxation before the evening session with the prickly Elder Jiao.
“So, what’s this one mean? I didn’t see it on your sheet.” Ling Qi tapped her finger against a clump of characters in the pale white tome. She was seated next to Suyin. It was a little uncomfortable to be brushing shoulders like this, but it was the only way to effectively hold the book between them.
Li Suyin frowned at the same section, biting her lower lip as she glanced at the long, unrolled scroll of language notes lying open in front of them. “I think… circulation? This section is discussing the energy flow in the basic animating array.”
Ling Qi furrowed her brows, looking up at Suyin’s translation notes while silently mouthing the sounds, committing them to memory. Suyin had spent the last week putting together a primer on the ancient Hill tribe language. Ling Qi wondered how a Cloud Tribe shaman had found it. With a primer, studying was going faster, but it was still difficult.“I should have been able to figure that out,” she muttered, rubbing her eyes. “Do you want to take a break?”
“I don’t mind,” Li Suyin replied, taking the book from Ling Qi. She was looking healthier now that she had broken through to Silver. She still had her scars, but the slightly pale and sickly cast Ling Qi had noticed her developing had gone away, and she seemed more energetic. “This is just so interesting though. I cannot wait to try out the arrays!” Li Suyin declared, jarring her from her thoughts.
“Yeah, it’s still pretty simple, but I can see some uses for it,” Ling Qi mused. They had worked out the details to the first array depicted in the book, which would create a scout out of the bones of something small like a mouse or a frog. It wouldn’t be of much use in combat, but Ling Qi could understand the value of a disposable set of eyes. “Expensive though.”
“Well, I can understand the need for a pure conductor,” Li Suyin said, a bit of her cheer deflated. “Spirit stone powder is expensive, but the alternative…” Li Suyin looked unsettled as she glanced down at the book.
“I don’t like the idea of using ‘freshly drawn human heart blood’ either,” Ling Qi agreed with a grimace. “Sorry, Li Suyin. The guy I took this from was kind of a scumbag.”
“No, it’s fine,” her friend said dismissively. “As Imperial cultivators, it is our duty to turn such things to better and more civilized use.”
“Yeah,” Ling Qi replied, glad that she was taking it well. “Congratulations again on breaking through by the way,” she added, bumping her shoulder against the other girl’s.
“It was nothing.” Suyin turned her face away shyly. “Really, I should be ashamed of taking as long as I did. I just wanted it to be as perfect as possible… Senior Sister Bao finally told me to stop stalling.”
Ling Qi gave her a sympathetic look. “Well, breakthroughs can be rough… Did you remember to have a bucket nearby?”
Li Suyin wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Yes, but it was still disgusting. I cannot believe that… sludge was part of me.” She grasped her knees in distress.
“It’s part of everyone,” Ling Qi pointed out dryly. “I looked like someone had covered me in a bucket of tar.” A small giggle escaped her friend’s lips, and Ling Qi smiled.
“I wasn’t any better,” Suyin admitted, leaning back against the cliff face they were seated against. “It still feels like it isn’t enough.”
Ling Qi closed her eyes, a vision of Gu Xiulan’s charred arm flashing through her mind. “You don’t need to be quick about it. As long as you keep moving forward, isn’t it fine?” Ling Qi asked, her voice low. She didn’t need more of her friends half killing themselves.
Li Suyin gave her a concerned look and nodded quickly. “Of course. I know I am being silly.” After a beat of silence, she said, “I wanted to ask something of you actually.”
“Oh? Need me to rough someone up for you?” Ling Qi joked, trying to dismiss her own somber mood.
“Nothing like that,” Li Suyin assured her. “Senior Sister Bao has given me directions to the place where she acquired her own spirit,” Suyin continued in a rush, “and I was hoping you would come with me.”
Ling Qi cocked her head to the side curiously. “I don’t mind, but I might be busy. Is it that dangerous?”
“It’s fine if you are not able to accompany me immediately,” Li Suyin said, toying with her sleeves. “I intend to perform a ritual supplication toward the elder spirit of the nest, and Senior Sister indicated that I might be… somewhat incapacitated after.”
That was weird. But she had heard of some rituals that required alcohol or drugs, so it wasn’t the weirdest result. “That sounds fine. Are you inviting Su Ling too?”
“Ah,” Li Suyin sighed. “Su Ling is… not very fond of spiders. I didn’t want to impose…”
“Oh.” Ling Qi was reminded that a nest of gigantic spiders lay in the forest at the base of the mountain. “Oh. I can see how you might not want to…” She trailed off awkwardly. She knew some people were weirdly afraid of bugs and spiders, but she hadn’t guessed Su Ling would be one of them. “That’s fine,” she finished.
“I’m glad,” Li Suyin said, relieved. “In any case, shall we resume? Now that we know the base components, deciphering the more complex arrays should be easier. I think we might be able to decipher the Vault Warrior array with just a little more work."
Upon Suyin’s agreement, Ling Qi shifted closer, looking over Suyin's shoulder as the girl traced a finger under the foreign text. It really was nice to relax now and then.
“You know,” Ling Qi began as she raised her hand to shield her face from the hard, biting wind. “Something you said a while ago confused me,” she said as the snow and ice littering the path crunched under her feet.
“What might that have been?” Zeqing asked absently. Unlike Ling Qi, the spirit floated easily ahead of her, drifting like a leaf on the wind while Ling Qi carefully made her way up the nearly vertical ice-slicked path. “You have not had trouble with the melody.”
“No, it’s just-” Ling Qi paused. She was somewhat wary of raising the subject; she didn’t want to find out what skidding down the mountain on her rear would feel like. “You said that Hanyi was spending time with her father, right? But, uh, you also said you devoured him. So… Did you remarry or something?”
The ice spirit’s blood red lips turned down in a slight frown, and a few flakes of snow fell, penetrating the cocoon of clear weather that surrounded them. “Ah. That must have seemed strange to a young mortal. Sadly, I have not found another appropriate suitor.” Zeqing sighed, gazing wistfully off into the blizzard that surrounded them.
“Then how...?” Ling Qi questioned, hauling herself up over a ledge while the spirit floated on unimpeded.
“It was brought to my attention that a child does best with both parents,” Zeqing explained, turning her blank white gaze to Ling Qi’s face. “I expressed the remaining fragments of his spirit into an ice revenant. It is a bit tiring, but Hanyi seems to enjoy playing with it.”
“Is that… safe?” Ling Qi asked uncertainly. That didn’t sound safe. Or healthy. At all.
“I hardly kept the more objectionable pieces of him undigested,” Zeqing replied archly before drifting higher toward the top of the rise they were climbing. “I believe we have arrived.”
“Where are we going anyway?” LIng Qi asked, setting aside the somewhat disturbing conversation. She blinked as she reached the top as well and found herself looking out at a wide field of untouched white snow curving away into the distance, hugging the sheer cliffs that lead closer to the peak. They were very high up at this point with the clouds seeming barely out of reach.
All told, it was a beautiful sight, and in that moment, Ling Qi felt a thrill of happiness that she now had the strength to see such a place with her own eyes. The sting of frigid cold at her extremities was a minor cost to pay for such a sight.
“You near mastery of that man’s melody,” Zeqing began, her silver hair rippling in the wind as Ling Qi passed her, peering into the distance where falling snow rendered the horizon an opaque white. “But you are still lacking. I thought a change of venue might push your understanding forward.”
Ling Qi took a deep breath of frozen air, feeling the way the wind qi played against her extended senses. It was a powerful thing, and the qi of water and mountain was strong as well, but this site hardly seemed better than the black pool. “Is there something special about this place that I’m missing?” Ling Qi asked, turning back to face the ice spirit.
The wind kicked up, sending the spirit’s empty gown and hair fluttering with increasing intensity. “You misunderstand,” the spirit explained gently, and the snow began to fall, her power no longer holding back the blizzard that raged around them. “You have mastered the notes and the melody, but the truth of it - the feeling - yet escapes you.”
Ling Qi felt a thrill of dread as the snowfall grew greater and her teacher’s form began to fade into the blizzard. She was suddenly and unpleasantly reminded that she was alone with a fourth grade spirit with few, if any, compunctions against murder.
“Lady Zeqing?” she asked, reverting to a more polite form of address. “Please tell me what you are doing?!” Her flute materialized in one hand and a knife fell into her other. She might not have a fighting chance, but surely she could escape if things went bad.
A shrieking gale blasted her, shredding her paltry attempt at control and sending her tumbling end over end into the snow. The dizziness as she was carried spinning through the air destroyed any sense of place or direction. Her knife was torn from her hands, tumbling off to vanish into the storm.
“Music is an exquisite art. It is the spirit expressed through sound.” Zeqing’s voice reached her, seeming to come from every direction. “Such pitiful mortal understanding is only the beginning of mastery. Sound is neither wind nor thunder. Such things cannot truly bear the weight of a soul’s expression.”
“What does any of that have to do with this!” Ling Qi screamed into the blinding blizzard, snow already crusting her hair and gown. It stung her eyes and burned on her skin, far colder than before.
“It is the only weapon available to you,” Zeqing replied, not unkindly, her voice echoing on the screaming of the wind. “And your only salvation. I shall await you at the exit.”
Ling Qi grit her teeth, tears stinging in her eyes as she tried to look for any sign of where she was. No matter where she looked though, there was only snow. Even with her enhanced senses, she could not see more than a few centimeters in front of her face, nor feel anything beyond an overwhelming torrent of darkness, wind, and water mixed with something else, a light qi that merged with the rest, barely detectable.
It was a test. Of course it was a test. Every single Elder and Spirit seemed to just love their tests!
She began to stir the cool and smooth dark qi to activate Crescent’s Grace, which would allow her to more easily move through the driving winds. But nothing happened. The qi flowing through her channels seemed frozen and unresponsive, refusing to move at her command. True alarm bloomed.
As if in response to the attempt, Ling Qi felt something slice across her cheek. She flinched as she felt the skin part, warm blood flowing down her face, and her skin prickled as the snow driven against it took on a harder cast like needles of ice.
She tried Thousand Ring Fortress next, and that, too, failed, the lively qi of wood just as frozen and dead as the other channels. Another sharp needle of ice stung, this time drawing a pinprick of blood on her hand. Ling Qi still had no idea how the spirit had sealed her other arts, but she could only assume Zeqing was being serious about using music to escape the blizzard. She raised her flute to her frozen lips and began to play.
The mist she called was immediately torn away, the flow from her flute far outstripped by the driving wind, but it was all she could do. She began to trudge forward, playing the familiar melody even as its sound was drowned out by the storm.
She didn’t know how long she trudged, seeking any sort of landmark or indication of where she was. All she knew was that she could certainly feel the cold now. She could feel it creeping into her bones, numbing her fingers, and stinging her eyes. She did her best not to falter in her playing, no matter how futile it seemed, while she desperately wracked her mind for some part of the melody she had not understood. Something that would let her counteract the cold. Something to keep her stiffening limbs moving.
She lost count of the tiny cuts that sliced her exposed skin. She barely recognized her braid tearing loose, leaving her long hair to flap in the wind, just one more thing dragging her back.
She remembered her first winter after running away, shivering alone in an alley. She had come the closest to breaking then, to running back to her mother in tears, ready to sacrifice her freedom for a warm hearth and the safety of her mother’s arms.
She remembered the kind old man whose blankets she had stolen, and in turn, the beating she had received when an older, stronger boy had taken them from her weeks later. She remembered sobbing alone as she clutched her broken arm while uncaring passersby ignored the huddled lump on the street corner.
She remembered loneliness and abandonment, the cruelty of the uncaring wilderness, unchanged by its urban nature. The mist flowing from her flute thickened, resisting the wind as it flowed down like water, engulfing her feet and legs. It wasn’t warm, it wasn’t comforting, but it was hers, and it rejected the external cold and driving shards of ice.
It wasn’t enough. Her notes were torn away the moment they left her flute, lost to the howling of the blizzard. She felt her understanding of the melody growing as the mist expanded, engulfing her figure and granting her a tiny, precious meter of sight, but she was still barely making progress. The power of the storm was simply too great to contest.
Zeqing had said something, something about music being spirit and soul. She had said mere sound was insufficient to express it in full. That didn’t make sense! How could she have music without sound?! It sounded like part of some stupid koan.
But Ling Qi was not a mortal anymore. It seemed strange that she had to keep reminding herself, but it was so easy to forget when she was always surrounded by other cultivators. She could jump higher, hit harder, and think more clearly, but it was all so gradual that it was hard to notice before it just became her new normal.
A cultivator wasn’t normal. She wasn’t normal. She could flow through a space smaller than her own head as a ribbon of darkness and fly with a magical gown! She could summon mist to confound her foes and sap their will or fill her friends with the vitality and toughness of an ancient oak!
Why then should her melody be unheard just because of the wind?
Something thrummed deep inside of her like the plucked string of a guqin, and she felt her qi change. The rumbling thunder that had filled her as she further mastered her melody faded and became lighter like the notes of a song drifting through the evening sky.
Her melody was no longer drowned out. Instead, it rang out through the storm, carried on pure qi. Although her ears could not hear it, her soul could. The music was as clear as if played on a calm summer’s day. Her mist exploded outward, doubling and then quadrupling in volume, utterly unaffected by the wind. Her fingers danced across the apertures of her flute, faster and more dexterous than any mortal musician could match.
As her mist roiled around her, the storm slackened. In front of her, Zeqing hovered peacefully only a short distance away in the now gently falling snow. Meanwhile, behind her, Ling Qi could see her own tracks going in a wide circle. She must have tramped through her own trail a dozen times or more and not noticed at all. She lowered her flute slowly and glared at Zeqing as she trudged toward the spirit, feeling angry and hurt.
“Why?” she demanded, stopping just out of arm’s length. “Why the hell didn’t you warn me first?”
Zeqing cocked her head to the side, something like earnest confusion on her pale face. “There was no need. You met my expectations admirably.”
“And if I hadn’t?” Ling Qi asked flatly.
“You may have died,” Zeqing admitted, looking bemused. “How could you expect a true understanding from anything less?”
Ling Qi took a deep breath. “It wouldn’t bother you at all if I had died, would it?”
Zeqing frowned, her gown fluttering less as the wind died down. “It would have been a disappointment,” she said thoughtfully. “Do you truly think yourself so unskilled?”
“That’s not...!” Ling Qi said in frustration. “That’s not the point. I don’t like being thrown into that kind of situation against my will!”
“I see,” the spirit replied, still seeming lost at Ling Qi’s anger. “I will keep that in mind?” she added questioningly.
Ling Qi closed her eyes for a moment. “Sure… I’m heading down the mountain now. I need a break.”
“Very well,” Zeqing said slowly. “I shall see you next time then?”
“Yeah,” Ling Qi replied without feeling as she stalked past the spirit. Her gown flared out, allowing her to begin the flight down, since she still couldn’t feel her toes. She wasn’t sure she would be coming back.