Bian Ya was certainly not a bad tutor, and she was friendly enough, even if her spirit beast was not. But her insights were clearly focused on the manipulation of wood qi. To Bian Ya, wind was secondary, combining with wood to form the concept of “dispersal.”

While Ling Qi could comprehend the older girl’s understanding of the combined element, it was at odds with her more usual understanding. The exercises in maintaining flows of wood qi disconnected from her channels, attached only by threads of wind, were certainly helpful in advancing her understanding of her sole wood art, Thousand Rings Fortress, in improving the range at which she could hold the shielding qi around her allies.

It was less directly useful in her practice with the Falling Stars art, but eventually, she reached an understanding. Wind, or rather air, was not simply freedom and motion; it was also a thing of connections. Wind lay between earth and heaven and touched all things. An arrow and a target thus already held a connection. With this understanding, she was able to complete the Falling Stars art and master its final technique, the Falling Star Shot, which would allow her to fire a single shot which flew true no matter the obstacles so long as there was a path to her target.

She parted ways with her tutor on good enough terms, but she couldn’t really say that she had connected to the older girl. She reminded Ling Qi of Xiulan in many ways, and while Xiulan was her friend, that relationship had taken a great deal of work and shared troubles.

Still, for some things, cultivation had to wait.

When Ling Qi felt the twinge from the minor alarms she had set around Zhengui’s pyre, set to go off at any unusual fluctuation of qi, she raced out into the garden, the door of the meditation chamber banging off the wall behind her. The pyre had burned down by the time she arrived. No longer a towering bonfire that rose more than two meters in the air, it now guttered low, dull red embers burning atop scraps of wood heaped on a small hill of gray ash, held within the solid fire-baked clay of of the firebreak she had set up around it during construction.

More importantly, she could feel that her spirit beast’s qi was no longer masked by the qi-infused wood she had used to build and maintain the fire. Ling Qi settled to the ground beside the pit, hands resting on the warm surface of the clay walls as she peered down. Everything she had read indicated that all this was natural, but she couldn’t help but worry.

Ling Qi was often so busy that it was difficult to think about things outside her many tasks, but she could admit that the niggling worry in the back of her thoughts had never quite gone away. It was rising to the fore, now that a change was occurring in Zhengui’s pyre. The ash from the fire formed a thick blanket of heavy qi, which prevented her from sensing Zhengui in detail. Had he broken through successfully? Could spirit beasts even fail like humans could? Had he changed, while buried down there under the ash?

The grey hill at the bottom of the pit shifted, and Ling Qi leaned forward, brows drawn together. “Zhengui? Can you hear me?” she called. “Are you ready? Do you need more fuel? I can-”

The ash exploded outward, and Ling Qi flinched as it enveloped her, stinging her eyes and getting caught in her throat. That surprise left her entire flat-footed as a heavy, stonelike mass smashed through the clay wall and bowled her over.

Mother!’ A deeper but still recognizable voice rumbled in her ear as the heavy weight settled on top of her, pinning her legs in place. ‘Mother, where are you?’

Oaf, you’re sitting on her!’ A more sibilant voice spoke from further back. ‘Stand up, and let Big Sister up.’

Ling Qi had been worried for nothing. Zhengui hadn’t changed at all, even if she would have to have a talk with Gui again; she was definitely no mother. Cool qi flooded her limbs, and Ling Qi flowed out of confinement, growing solid again as she crouched in front of her no longer little spirit, a smile on her face. “Little Brother, you’ve been asleep for too long,” she scolded playfully.

Gui blinked his big emerald eyes at her. He was now more than two meters long, and half that across. The blocky dull-edged spikes of his shell rose high enough to reach the bottom of her chest from standing height. He still pushed his blunt, scaly head up against her hand in the same way when she rested it on his head.

I was dreaming!’ Gui chirped, though it couldn't really be called that anymore. ‘It was very hard to find the path home. But I wanted to come back to you!’

Zhen rose from his resting place on Gui’s back to nuzzle at her cheek with his warm snout, lines of light burning between his scales. ‘Only because of me. Silly Gui would have gotten lost many times on his own,’ his serpentine half bragged. He too had grown much. Now, over two meters of serpentine body extended from the rear of Gui’s shell, making Zhen longer than his lower half, if much smaller overall.

Zhen wanted to sleep longer. Lazy Zhen,’ Gui accused from below. ‘I finished my first dream much sooner!

You did not!’ Zhen hissed, drawing away from her to glare down at his other half. ‘Clumsy Gui probably did not even find answers!’

“Settle down,” Ling Qi intervened, tapping Zhen on the snout. “I’m just glad that you’re back. You’ve gotten so much bigger now. I won’t be able to carry you anymore.”

I can carry Mo-’ Gui caught Zhen’s eye and corrected himself. ‘I can carry Big Sister now. I’ve gotten really strong!’

Ling Qi let the slip pass, her grin not fading as she leaned down to wrap her arms around Gui’s stubby neck, and Zhen hurried to pile on, coiling around her shoulders. “I bet you can. We’ll definitely have to try it out.”

Ling Qi could admit to herself that she took a certain pleasure in the expressions of her fellow disciples as she rode out of the residential district on Zhengui’s back. Being blatant was fun sometimes. Even if it was a really uncomfortable and awkward seat. Thankfully, Zhengui kept it slow, and she didn’t fall off. That would have been embarrassing.

Zhengui’s presence in spiritual form was much like a warm blanket constantly wrapped around her shoulders. She would never be caught wholly alone again, and that thought was comforting. It did make her realize that Meizhen had been present less and less often of late to the extent that she had begun to miss their training sessions.

That was a little worrying, particularly since the girl had not made any excuse for it. Her friend could be incredibly frustrating at times by taking reticence to the extremes that she did. Bai Meizhen did stop at their home at least once a day though, late at night. So after spending the day ranging about with Zhengui and working out the final kinks in her cultivation of Thousand Rings Fortress, Ling Qi returned home and settled in to wait in the front room while Zhengui went to nap in the garden.

Ling Qi prepared tea for Meizhen and herself. It had been awhile since they’d taken a cup together, and she’d come to appreciate it more after spending so much time around Cai Renxiang in the last few weeks. She had guessed the time correctly because Meizhen arrived home just as she poured the first cup.

Ling Qi took her first sip as she heard the door close and heard Meizhen’s faint, even footsteps on the wooden floor of the entry hall. As Meizhen stepped into view, Cui coiled loosely around her shoulders, Ling Qi met her eyes. “Welcome home. Do you think you’d like a cup?”

Bai Meizhen paused, her brows slightly furrowed as she regarded Ling Qi. “I suppose,” she replied, even as Cui flicked her tongue dismissively and looked away. “What brings you to the house at this hour?” she asked as she stepped into the dining room and settled herself elegantly across from Ling Qi. “You are usually out taking in moonlight.”

This was cutting into her meditation time, Ling Qi knew, but she could afford it. She was nearing the point where further cultivation was stalled until her breakthrough anyway. She carefully poured a cup and pushed it toward Meizhen before answering. “Even I take breaks now and again,” she said lightly. “I thought it would be nice to brew a pot of this again. It’s been awhile.”

Meizhen leaned forward to take the cup from her, taking care to avoid brushing her fingers over Ling Qi’s. In a moment of relative expressiveness, Meizhen closed her eyes and inhaled deeply from the steam rising over the cup, some of the tension melting from her shoulders. “It has. But I recall that you used to find the flavor rather repulsive.”

“It grew on me,” Ling Qi said with a shrug. “Maybe my taste improved?”

“Likely enough. You have the senses to appreciate the flavor now,” Meizhen acknowledged.

Ling Qi made a sound of agreement, eyeing her friend over the rim of her cup as she sipped. “What has made you so busy? I don’t mind if you need some time to yourself, but I admit, I’d like to know why. Sun Liling is probably hurting for a victory. Going off by yourself can be dangerous.”

Meizhen favored her with a flat look.

Ling Qi waved off her nonverbal response. “I hide while I’m out and about. She only caught up to me that last time because I was being incautious and that ass Yan Renshu was tailing me. You don’t exactly disguise your presence anywhere you go.”

“It would be beneath me to do so,” Meizhen said with a frown. “Skulking is best left to the lesser branches of the family.” Ling Qi simply nodded, not taking offense, since she knew the girl didn’t mean any. “If the barbarian wishes to confront me on my travels, she may. I will meet her with my full force.”

“I know you will.” Ling Qi smiled. “But all the same, she’s been getting trickier. I wouldn’t put it past her to jump you with her whole faction at this point.”

“What is left of it, perhaps,” Bai Meizhen scoffed as Cui dipped her head down, stealing a taste of the tea as she had done when she was smaller. “I do see your point. Trusting in the honor of a Sun is foolish. I suppose I imagined that she would have more pride than that.”

“Maybe she does. What have you been doing that’s so important? Did you find a really good site to cultivate at?”

Meizhen looked away, seemingly hesitant to answer. Ling Qi regarded her friend patiently. She would drop it if the other girl asked her to, but until then, she was going to ask.

“I have been taking steps to eliminate the threat that Yan Renshu represents. The efforts you have put forth alongside Lady Cai have been impressive, but his threat remains,” the pale girl answered after consideration. “I may be overstepping my bounds to an extent, but if you are too softhearted to do so yourself, as your friend, I feel I must do so.”

Ling Qi blinked. That wasn’t quite the answer she expected, but there was something weird about Meizhen’s phrasing. “I don’t mind, but I’m not sure what you mean by ‘overstepping your bounds.’ You can beat up whoever you want, can’t you?”

“He is your prey,” Meizhen expanded, staring at her as if she had said something dumb. “You took it upon yourself to ruin him. I do not understand why you stopped - and I apologize if you had some longer plan - but you cannot leave an enemy half-defeated like that. I had assumed you to simply be squeamish about finishing things…”

“He’s already about as neutralized as he can get, isn’t he? What is there left to do?” Ling Qi asked.

Meizhen studied her. “Ling Qi, who do you imagine would retaliate if that boy were crushed entirely? Death may be a step too far here in the Sect, but he still retains the resources to do harm.”

“I thought that I had after breaking his last base. Do you know something more?”

Cui flicked her tongue disdainfully at her, and Meizhen sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “... I have located his primary remaining lairs, a storage facility and a residence. In the past week, I have foiled no less than three attempts to set an ambush upon you. Would you like to come along, so that I may show you the proper treatment of an enemy without sufficient connections?”

Ling Qi frowned. She was no moral paragon herself, but she had an inkling that Meizhen was not kind outside of their friendship. Meizhen’s offer sounded… ominous.

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