Still frustrated, Ling Qi threw herself further into training, determined to take full advantage of the mass of medicinal energy still burning in her meridians. She took breaks only to study with Suyin and to venture out on explorations with Han Jian and his group.
After her surprise tribulation from Zeqing, Ling Qi found the bite of her phantoms more real and the propagation of the entrapping darkness qi of no longer required the use of a separate technique, the effect having merged with Mist of the Vale. With a twist of the tune, she could narrow the drain of the Starlight Elegy technique to focus on a single target, trapping them in the Despair of the Lost as Zeqing did to her.
On the other hand, the first breath of the art she had stolen from Yan Renshu’s base, Abyssal Exhalation, came grudgingly. Although she was well practiced with dark qi by now, the cloying mix that rose from the meeting of darkness and earth did not come naturally. The hungering, corrosive violet mist of the Breath of Stygian Depth had certain things in common with her Mist of the Vale, but channeling and patterning her exhaled qi into the slimy forms of tomb worms was less pleasant. It was, however, quite potent.
Meizhen found her new art somewhat distasteful, but she could not argue with the efficacy of it. However, the girl was remarkably quick to annihilate the slimy constructs Ling Qi summoned before they could touch her. Ling Qi considered taking the time to talk with her friend about Cai’s offer and her other troubles, but the girl was busy with her own cultivation. Besides, Ling Qi wanted to get her thoughts in order before presenting them to her friend.
As the week wore on, Ling Qi continued to work hard. Still brimming with energy, she saw no reason to refuse a request from Gu Xiulan to help the girl with her own training. They hadn’t exactly had time for heart-to-hearts while out with the others after all.
Ling Qi winced as she gazed at the wreckage of the training field and the merrily burning, bright blue fires scattered around the target area. They were, even now, greedily devouring the grass and leaving behind patches of suspiciously shiny dirt. She watched Xiulan’s spirit happily frolic in a steadily shrinking patch, streaks of blue traveling up its wispy limbs as it drank in the fire.
To her right was Zhengui, who she had let out to play while they trained, and well…
“Big Sis, look!” the little tortoise chirped from the nearest patch of fire as he puffed out his cheeks and breathed out a cloud of sparkling, multi-colored ash, apparently fueled by the unusual nature of the fires.
“How pretty,” she complimented him with a slightly stiff expression. “Thank you for helping put out the fires, Zhengui.” She was answered with a happy chirp and a hiss as he went back to ‘work’. That done, she turned back to Xiulan.
The other girl sat cross legged on a patch of dirt, her chest rising and falling with a careful breathing exercise. Her cloth of gold veil fluttered with each breath, concealing the scowl Ling Qi could tell she wore underneath due to her scrunched up brows and narrowed eyes.
“It should not be this difficult to extinguish fires,” her friend hissed, frustrated. “It is a child’s exercise!”
“A child can’t make fires that do that,” Ling Qi pointed out dryly, indicating a patch of literally melted sand in the target range and the curls of flame burning in place without apparent fuel. “I think you can be excused for needing to work at it a little.”
Gu Xiulan gave her a dirty look but didn’t immediately reply, instead glaring at the nearest pile of burning kindling that was once a reinforced target. The flames flickered in time with her breathing. They dimmed, but a moment later, they flared back to life, actinic sparks erupting.
“It makes no sense,” she growled. “They are extensions of my qi! They shouldn’t have a life of their own like this.” This time, she closed her eyes, and heat distortions appeared in the air around her. The flames Xiulan was focusing on collapsed, crushed before they could spark further.
“See, you can still do it,” Ling Qi encouraged, walking over to sit down beside her. “And you can’t say that it isn’t worth it. I can’t really afford to try and block your attacks as it is.”
Xiulan huffed as she opened her eyes, focusing on the next fire. “As enjoyable as it is to revel in the power, I doubt the Sect will be pleased with having a training ground burnt down every other day.”
“I doubt they’ll care,” Ling Qi responded. “What’s a little landscaping compared to a powerful disciple?” That seemed to mollify Xiulan.
“I suppose,” she replied, and Ling Qi saw her fingers clench on her knees as she glared at the fire, forcing it to shrink bit by bit. “Hmph. You must think me lazy, to complain about work like this.”
“The clean up is never the fun part,” Ling Qi said wryly. “My arts aren’t the kind to leave a mess, but if they were, I doubt I’d have much fun with that step.”
“Big Sis, I found a pretty!” She looked down to find a proud looking Zhengui trundling over, a clump of warped sand that glittered in the late afternoon light. He dropped it at her feet, his serpent head looking away even as his little green eyes gleamed up at her, excited for her approval.
“How lovely,” Xiulan said, a touch of amusement entering her voice despite her strained expression.
Ling Qi merely glanced at her before picking up the bead and examining it with a serious expression. It was pretty in a rough way, especially with the spark of azure fire that still glittered at its core.
“Thank you, Zhengui,” she replied with dignity, patting the little reptile on the head. “It’s very pretty. I love it.” Practically radiating pleasure, he trundled off again, Zhen wagging behind him.
“Such a devoted child,” Gu Xiulan said. “You should be proud.”
Ling Qi huffed at the touch of sarcasm in her voice. “He is,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a little childish.”
“I suppose not,” Xiulan mused. “You would not find many cultivators willing to spend so much time on a spirit without even beginning combat training though.”
“I can worry about that when he hits reaches second realm,” Ling Qi replied. “There’s nothing wrong with letting him play for now.”
“What a strange attitude,” Xiulan said, her stress seeming to ease as she leaned back. The last of the fires was under control now, being consumed by Linghuo. “I would have thought you would drive him as hard as you drive yourself.”
“That’s different,” Ling Qi said absently, watching Zhen bristle as her spirit confronted Xiulan’s spirit over the last sparks. “Anyway, what do you say - want to head to the market? I think we both deserve a treat for working hard since our little gluttons have already had theirs.”
“Of all the things you could learn from me, you pick up my sweet tooth,” Xiulan laughed, moving to stand. “Fine. Let’s be off.”
Ling QI was glad her friend had worked out her tension for the moment. If offering Xiulan a time to relax herself was all she could do, she would do it gladly.
Such diversions could not last long though, and soon, Ling Qi had to return to training. The last several days spent in Elder Jiao’s company had been stressful as she continued stubbornly cultivating Sable Crescent Step. Locked in a dream state, she found herself forced to solve more and more complex puzzles of three-dimensional movement and manual dexterity with ever harsher requirements of time and precision.
It was enough to push her understanding to the next step and reach the state of being ‘one with shadow’ for a short time. In that state, she could move from shadow to shadow as if she had no body, hidden in the darkness cast by a person or object. Having mastered it, she was able to further understand the Sable Crescent Step art, and she was sure that no one could track her through mundane means anymore. What she had in her jade slip was a fragment- or more precisely, it was only the beginning of a chain. One step lay beyond her in the slip still, but even that was only the completion of the first true stage of mastery.
It was with that thought in mind that she left the dream, trembling with mental exhaustion. As sensation returned to her real body, she found her head lying on something soft, rather than the floor, as was usual when awakening. Ling Qi dragged her eyes open, staring upward blearily and found a face swimming into focus above her own.
Xin was above her, silver painted lips curved up in an easy smile as she hummed to herself, and Ling Qi felt the spirit’s cold fingers brushing through her hair. She stiffened immediately, discomfort flooding her thoughts, made all the worse by Zeqing’s actions earlier this week. If she had been helpless before a grade four spirit, how much weaker was she in the face of a prism?
“Awake already? How impressive,” Xin said lightly, peering down at her. “Ah, I see. You’ve completed the lesson then?”
“I - Uh - I have,” Ling Qi replied nervously, her skin prickling at the feeling of the hands on her scalp. The inability to even feel Xin’s qi was hardly a comfort. “Could you… Can I get up please?”
“Ah, of course,” Xin replied, sounding disappointed as Ling Qi hurriedly sat up. “My apologies. I did not know it would bother you so.”
“It’s not your fault,” Ling Qi replied quickly even as she hurried to arrange herself into a properly seated position across from Xin. A glance around the room revealed no sign of Elder Jiao.
Xin hummed, and her eyes flickered silver. In that moment, Ling Qi felt as if Xin was looking through her, rather than at her. “I see. You had been thinking of us as if we were humans.”
Ling Qi recoiled. Had the spirit just looked straight into her mind or something?! She forced herself to relax. “You act like it,” she accused. “Then she goes and tosses me into a lethal blizzard. I thought…”
“She wasn’t being deliberately cruel,” Xin said kindly, resting her hands in her lap, “though [Winter’s Muse/Songstress of Endings/****^%^] has a cruel nature at heart.”
Ling Qi shuddered. Although her eyes told her that Xin had only said Zeqing’s name by the movement of her lips, what she heard and felt was different. It was meaning, impressed directly into her thoughts, even if most of it remained incomprehensible.
“To face the slow specter of death by cold, alone and without recourse, is the greatest of inspirations in her eyes. How could she deny you the opportunity?”
“It… was,” Ling Qi admitted. She found herself saying, “If she had offered, I probably would have done it anyway.” It was foolish, but she knew herself well enough. “She should have asked.”
“And that is your nature, that hatred for a lack of choices,” Xin mused. “Well, I will not tell you what to do, but I think you should talk to her. That woman is a lonely one.”
“I thought you said I shouldn’t treat you like humans,” Ling Qi sulked, crossing her arms.
“You should not,” Xin said sternly. “You should simply understand where spirits differ. Beasts are easier, for they share your drives. Spirits…” She leaned back, an amused smile on her lips. “Until my Jiao shared his essence with me, I knew not hunger, touch, fear, happiness, or even true desire. I was a mere fragment of the Moon, seeking secrets for their own sake. That woman had so much less time and opportunity to take on human traits.”
Ling Qi felt uncomfortable with the older woman’s happy, nostalgic tone and ecstatic expression.
“There is no need to discuss such things with a mere disciple.” Ling Qi startled as Elder Jiao appeared behind his wife, frowning down at her.
“Oh?” Xin asked playfully, turning her head and resting her cheek in her hand. “You do not want the girl to know how you stained an innocent fairy with your essence and wrought her into your ideal spouse?”
Ling Qi choked. “Honored Elder, I have completed your lesson,” she said hurriedly, cutting off anything else Xin might say.
Elder Jiao’s expression was flat and stony as he ignored his giggling wife. “So you have. What will you do with your final few days of training then?”
“I was hoping,” Ling Qi began, even as she glanced uncomfortably at Xin. “I was hoping you could instruct me on the nature of spirits… and how to further my understanding of Eight Phase Ceremony.”
Elder Jiao sighed, even as Xin grinned. “Of course you do,” the man grumbled. “Fine.”
The ensuing lessons were much less stressful thankfully and were overseen as often by Xin as by the Elder himself, granting her insights into the way spirits behaved even as she refined her ability to take in qi from the night sky. Soon enough, they came to an end, and the prickly Elder bade her goodbye for the last time.
She had made a… mostly good impression. Maybe?