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Ling Qi hissed in pain as a deep black and purple bruise swiftly began to form on her arm. She stared down, dumbfounded at the offending limb. Had she just… failed to open a meridian? That had never happened before. She had been carefully breaking up a knot of impurities, chipping away at it little by little, and then…

“Are you well?” Bai Meizhen asked her. The other girl was seated on the stone ‘bench’ where Zeqing taught her lessons. She was looking at Ling Qi with concern.

“Yes. I slipped when opening my meridian is all,” Ling Qi said with a wince. She sat beside the fathomless black pool, soaking in the dark qi that emanated from it. “I was just surprised.”

“It happens. Meridians grow more difficult to open as their number grows. Give the channel time to heal before attempting to open it again. Perhaps we should break here,” Meizhen said, letting the dark water coiled about her legs drain down onto the rocky ground, where it began to swiftly freeze.

“I suppose. I did get most of my goals done for today,” Ling Qi grumbled. She had trained her Argent Current some more to the Third Flow, and together with Argent Storm, she was increasingly certain that there was something more to the Argent Arts, some way that they fit together into something greater. At the same time, she was uncertain if the Argent Arts, with its focus on physical melee, really meshed with her style. The latest technique in Argent Current, Inescapable Flow, chained a targeted enemy to her with bonds of qi. It worked well with Argent Storm’s defensive techniques but not very well with either of her mainstays, her musical arts and her archery.

Still, she couldn’t actually use the improved Argent Current without another opened meridian. Ling Qi flicked her wrist, pulling a medicinal pill from her ring and popped it into her mouth. Soon, the swelling began to go down.

“Indeed,” Meizhen said demurely, just as unbothered by the cold as she was.

Ling Qi scooted away from the pool to rest her back against the wall of the ravine, only briefly glancing at Meizhen. She was glad that things were finally becoming normal again with the other girl. They meditated together now, and when they felt ready, they would spar and clash for a time before returning to meditation to further master the flows of their techniques. Occasionally, that routine was broken up by a break for less spiritually strenuous activities. Ling Qi would take that time to work through Suyin’s notes on formation constructs while Meizhen slowly continued to pick out embroidery patterns on a length of silk.

They even ate together on occasion when both of them felt like it. Ling Qi tried not to think of that though. While she was glad for what she was sure was a display of trust and comfort, it never got less disturbing to see her friend dislocate her jaw and swallow a fist-sized third grade core like a piece of candy or even an entire raw fish. The cracking, grinding sound the cores made as the pale girl’s throat crushed them to powder made her hair stand on end.

On the other hand, constantly sparring with Meizhen did have its downsides. She had yet to land a meaningful blow on the girl. It filled her with frustration, and as Ling Qi leaned back against the cold stone, nursing her sore arm, she found herself giving that feeling voice.

“Meizhen, am I really making any progress at all?” Ling Qi asked, looking up at the sky. It was a clear night, and she could see the bright half moon and stars.

Meizhen cocked her head to the side as she looked up from the kerchief she had been working on. The intense cold of the upper mountain had brought a faint flush to the girl’s pale cheeks. “What an odd question,” she remarked, her eyebrows drawing together in consternation. “Were you not a mortal less than a year ago?”

“Alright, poor phrasing,” Ling Qi admitted.

“You should choose your words more carefully,” Meizhen admonished lightly, returning her gaze to her work. “I have heard that you were lapsing back into casual, common speech with Cai Renxiang.”

“Was she complaining to you?” Ling Qi asked with a frown. “I forgot myself a little, but…”

“She was not ‘complaining’,” Meizhen corrected. “That you are growing more comfortable is good, but there are limits,” she continued, glancing up to meet Ling Qi’s eyes. “If you are to involve yourself in the games of nobility, you MUST temper your speech more consistently.”

Ling Qi let out a frustrated huff but didn’t object to Meizhen’s point. She forgot to use proper speech all too easily still. “I understand. What I meant is…” Ling Qi trailed off, falling silent as the memory of her desperate run from Sun Liling surfaced. “It’s just - I thought I was catching up, but... Sun Liling, if I hadn’t run from her, would have destroyed me. I had no chance.” Ling Qi found her voice growing quieter and quieter with each word as she folded in on herself, staring at her own lap.

Bai Meizhen stilled. It was a subtle thing, which the Ling Qi of a few months ago would not have noticed at all, but to her eyes now, it was as obvious as the cold current of highly pressurized toxic qi that flowed through her friend’s channels. For a time, Meizhen did not respond.

“Only you, Qi, would find yourself at fault for such a thing,” she finally huffed, giving Ling Qi a reproachful look. “A cultivator of less than a year, and you choose to feel inadequate for failing to match that girl in direct combat.”

“It’s stupid, I know,” Ling Qi admitted, clasping her hands in her lap. “I thought I had been keeping up with you fairly well so… Well, I didn’t know how much you were holding back.”

There was a faint rustle of cloth, and Ling Qi found that Meizhen had turned to fully face her, a faint frown on her face. “The purpose of a spar is not to crush your opponent. Nor are my best techniques something which I would willingly use upon a… friend,” Meizhen said, the last word coming out somewhat awkwardly. “Qi, you have become strong. Do not doubt that. When you break through, know that you will stand near to me, though our skill sets might differ.”

Ling Qi let out a soft huff of a laugh. “Which is your way of saying that you can manhandle me whenever you want,” she teased, forcing her worry down. “Your defense is ridiculous.”

The flush on her friend’s cheeks briefly deepened, and she glanced away. “... A Bai should remain untouched and dignified at all times,” Meizhen awkwardly mumbled. “Your resistance to my spiritual techniques is impressive. Do not denigrate yourself so.”

Ling Qi simply nodded, shooting her friend a thankful look as she pulled out her notes. She would have to give the meridian a rest, but that was no excuse to stop working.

***

That went for her afternoons too. Her tutoring with Zhong Peng had progressed at a good pace, and today was the last day. Over the course of the lessons Ling Qi had honed the arts she had chosen to train. Fleeting Zephyr came naturally to her, and she was thankful for it, speeding her steps and protecting her from projectiles. Her accuracy and fire rate with the Falling Stars art under stress had grown greatly as well.

Zhong Peng had taken her lack of a truly long range perception art as an indication that she did not wish to follow the more standard archer path. Instead, he spent his time drilling her on maintaining her aim while under attack and teaching her little tricks that she could use to more easily handle a bow in melee. Unlike a mortal’s weapon, a cultivator’s bow would not necessarily be ruined by using it to parry, and an arrow could be used like a somewhat awkward punch dagger in a pinch.

Of course, Ling Qi couldn’t simply use her slender bow as a bludgeon the way Zhong Peng could use his, so his lessons had required some adjustment. Ling Qi felt fairly satisfied with her progress.

That didn’t mean picking the leaves and twigs out of her hair at the beginning of the session was any less of an irritation. Xiulan would blanch if she could see her now, smeared with dirt, her gown marked with slowly repairing rips and cuts. Worse of all, Ling Qi felt gross and sweaty. It seemed she had not moved beyond such mortal concerns yet. Ling Qi wondered when she had gotten used to feeling clean, a luxury - and danger - on the streets.

“You’ve done well.” Her instructor’s voice caused her to look up from undoing her braid. “You adapt quickly and have a survivor’s instinct.” Zhong Peng leaned against a thick tree at the edge of the clearing, his thick arms crossed. It was the young man’s preferred ‘at rest’ pose.

“Thank you, Senior Brother Zhong,” Ling Qi replied, bowing as best she could from her seated position. “Is there anything you would advise going forward?”

He let out a rumbling hum, considering her. “Not as such. You have a strong foundation, but I have little idea what you are trying to build,” he admitted bluntly. “You are not like me. The bow is not your focus.”

Ling Qi reluctantly nodded. She enjoyed shooting, much like she enjoyed music. But she wasn't sure yet whether she wanted to build her cultivation around either.

“That is fine,” the older boy continued. “My father was a hunter, and my mother an army scout. Archery is in my blood. I have known what I wanted for many years. Not all are so lucky.”

“So I have to figure it out myself then?” Ling Qi asked ruefully, letting her hands fall into her lap. Not what she had hoped for.

“As we all must,” Zhong Peng said, shrugging his broad shoulders. “Choose what you want to do. Tailor your skills to that. As things are, once you have mastered Falling Stars, I would suggest looking into mid and close range variants utilizing water or pure wind elements if you wish to continue the path of the bow. One who tries to do all things will only find themselves drowning in mediocrity.”

“The Sect arts cover all the elements though, don’t they?” Ling Qi asked defensively. “The Sect Head can’t be wrong, right?” The Argent arts had been personally developed by him after all.

Zhong Peng inclined his head slightly. “That is a path all its own,” he explained. “An Inner disciple who wishes to follow in Master Yuan’s footsteps would do well not to be distracted by other arts.” The young man frowned, reaching up to scratch at the stubble on his chin as he considered his words. “What you are doing is not wrong. Yet you lack focus. Secondary skills are an asset, but you need to choose a clear primary skill.”

Ling Qi grudgingly nodded. If she had to choose… her music would be her primary skill. Forgotten Vale Melody was one of her highest quality arts and a very versatile control and support art. Sable Crescent Step, another gift from the moon, worked well with Forgotten Vale Melody, but its quality and upgrades meant she could use it with other styles as well. The problem was that her other arts didn’t necessarily support a music-focused build at the moment, not the way Xiulan’s skills all built on empowering her flames or Meizhen’s all supported her utterly impregnable defense. The whole reason she had sought Falling Stars art was because her current music repertoire lacked a way to truly damage others in a reasonable time frame.

She parted ways with her tutor amicably. Perhaps next year, once she had sorted her style out, she could show off a coherent art suite to him.

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