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This was incredibly frustrating.

Ling Qi had set aside time for a Sect mission for the first time in months with an eye toward purchasing a tutor’s services. Her advancement with the bow had stagnated recently, so she thought to help it along as she had her music. So, having looked over the job board, Ling Qi had signed up to capture storm spirits that spawned after the recent spate of bad weather that had struck the area around the sect. It should have been a simple enough mission.

She was slowed by her need to hide her route. Sun Liling was still on the mountain and presumably, also still angry at her. Running around openly wasn’t a great idea. But in addition to being supplied with the clay capture jars, she had been given clear directions to the locations with the heaviest concentrations of storm spirits. As she visited each location though, no spirits were found.

Ling Qi frowned as she crouched at the side of a stream. This clearing was another location marked as high concentration, but as usual, the spirits were nowhere to be found. Ling Qi studied the clearing with narrow eyes and tried to grasp at the area’s qi. Standing up, she stalked through the ankle-high grass in the small clearing to identify clues as to their whereabouts.

The air still tingled with heavy water and heavenly qi, so the storm spirits had been in the clearing not long ago. But humps of dirt were churned up across the clearing as if something long and thin had passed just beneath the surface. And there at the edge of the stream were the charred shards of a capture pot. Ling Qi moved closer to examine them, but she stopped dead, still three paces away. There was something disturbing the earth and water qi at the waterside…

Ling Qi darted backward, cloak flaring like wings as dark qi flowed through her limbs. The earth beneath her erupted as a dark shape emerged, and she just barely avoided flashing metal claws.

It was a mannequin of metal and wood, mud and clumps of grass still clinging to its smooth and polished hide. Its eyeless head swivelled towards her, and Ling Qi was baffled to see what looked like a bird’s beak affixed to its head. She drew her bow, the slim length of the weapon shimmering as it emerged from her ring.

Before the string was even half drawn back, the mannequin’s beak opened and a horrific ringing noise rang out. It cut into her ears like a knife, high-pitched, echoing, and deafeningly loud. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw the trees swaying as birds rose from the forest in great flocks, confused and frightened by the sound. The thing leaped at her then, but she had finished pulling back the string of her bow.

Lightning crackled, and three arrows flew in rapid succession. The first blew off an arm, the second blasted a fist-sized hole through its torso, and the third destroyed that horrible screeching head. As the fragments crashed down beside her, she had only a moment to feel relieved as the noise stopped before she heard a faint click.

Ling Qi flung herself away, but it was not enough. The puppets’ remains dissolved, rotting away and releasing a great cloud of virulent green mist. It stank terribly and made her eyes water, but other than that, it did no more than prickle wetly on her skin. As she landed on a tree branch, thoroughly bewildered, she scrubbed at her face with her sleeve.

Then, ears still ringing from the screeching caught the sound of wings and angry birdsong. She looked up and felt the attention of the scores of winged spirit beasts riled from their nests. The hair on her neck rose as a deep throaty roar of agitation rose from the forest behind her and was swiftly joined by a dozen more beastly voices.

Ling Qi swore under her breath and fled.

***

Yan Renshu.

Yan Renshu had sabotaged her mission. There was no one else with both the motive and the resources to set up such a trap. Thanks to Yan Renshu, her mission had failed. She hadn’t accomplished anything but waste her time.

She didn’t even manage to train her arts effectively that afternoon because she was forced to burn through her qi to flee the angry beasts. There had been third realms among them! It was lucky that she hadn’t gotten hurt.

She knew she had made an enemy that day with the book, but this was the first time he had personally rigged something for her. Previously, he had aided Sun Liling with information on her whereabouts, allowing the Sun Princess to ambush her, but it seemed that the puppet user no longer deemed that sufficient. It was yet another knife aimed at her back. She would have to be on her guard at all times when alone.

For the moment, there was little she could do save nurse a new grudge from atop the moonlit cliff she had settled onto like a grumpy crow. At least the smell from the mannequin had come off in the bath. As she closed her eyes, she forced her anger and irritation from her mind and focused on the moon above and the stellar qi filtering down through its light. Letting her emotions stew on the surface, she focused inward on her increasingly dense dantian.

Between the Argent Soul art, the Sable Light Pills gifted by the moon, and the stellar qi she absorbed every night, her foundation was growing increasingly potent, but as this afternoon showed, it was not yet enough. Flight still drained her terribly so she continued to practice the refinement of stellar qi. She had been growing more skilled at this exercise, just recently reaching the fourth phase of the Eight Phase Ceremony cultivation art. She could feel that this phase consolidated the benefits from the Grinning Moon quest; even if she changed to another cultivation art in the future, she would be able to gain some benefit from trickery.

It was the highest phase she would be able to achieve without breaking through to the third realm. Until then, she simply lacked the refinement of spirit to perform the fifth phase’s exercises and would be unable to comprehend the higher mysteries of the moon phases.

Completing the fourth phase had revealed something interesting though. When she looked ahead at the prerequisites for the remaining phases, she didn’t recognize the names of the cultivation stages mentioned in the slip. She had assumed that each cultivation realm had the same three stages as Red and Yellow, but some research showed that she was wrong.

The third realm contained eight discrete stages. They were: Early; Appraisal; Foundation; Threshold; Framing; Formation; Fortification; and Completion. While she could not find much literature on the third realm in the Outer Sect archive, what little she did find indicated that there were many bottlenecks and obstacles to rising through those stages. The Path was longer than she could have ever imagined. No wonder so many cultivators remained in the third realm for life; it was longer than the previous two realms combined.

She would just have to work even harder to not become one of them.

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A note from Yrsillar

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Wow, it got late fast today. Sorry guys! Taking care of taxes is a pretty time consuming!


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