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It was finally time for her to begin attempting to break through to the third realm. She had already reached the peak of the second, and her arts were mastered as far as they could be taken. However, she knew from asking that it would be a lengthy process. So, with the ceremony behind her, Ling Qi set about preparing. She spoke with Zeqing, placing their lesson five days from now. She gathered all the food Zhengui could need and patiently explained to the young spirit that she would be sleeping for a few days. And, of course, she told her friends what she would be doing.

With everything in order, she entered the meditation room and closed her eyes to cultivate.

Breaking through began much like normal cultivation with the gathering of energies within her dantian and the cycling of those energies throughout the channels of her spirit. The difference was one of magnitude. Reaching the peak of a realm meant finding the limit of energy a cultivator’s spirit could sustain, and attempting to cultivate further felt much like trying to stretch a muscle too far. That metaphor did not quite match the feeling of painful stretching that breaking through brought on, but it was the closest one she could think of.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to liken it to trying to fit into a too small gown, but Ling Qi didn’t like the implications of that one. Still, the feeling of her spirit straining against the confines of the second realm was unpleasant to say the least. It was immensely satisfying to feel something of the barrier inside of her give way.

Excited, she pressed on, cycling her qi furiously as she pushed out against the weakened boundary, the qi in her dantian flaring brightly in her senses. This time though, as her will and energy slammed into the barrier, it held, flexing only slightly. Immense pain struck her as she was slammed back into her body, her meditative state shattered. Her head throbbed with agony, and Ling Qi blinked groggily as she felt something wet dripping from her nose and tasted copper on her lips.

She tried to sit up, only to fall back to the floor with a whimper as her dantian burned in a way it hadn’t since that first night with Meizhen. Pain spread throughout her entire system of qi channels and kept her immobile for a time, breathing raggedly.

After some time, she managed to raise a trembling hand to wipe away the blood trickling from her nose. She could feel Zhengui’s alarm through their connection. She was probably going to have to pay to fix the garden door.

... Maybe she would give Suyin a visit before trying that again.

***

Ling Qi shuddered as she felt the needle pierce her skin and spread pleasant numbness through her painfully burning channels.

“You’re the best, Li Suyin,” Ling Qi said, her voice slightly slurred by the haze of medicine clouding her thoughts.

Ling Qi lay face down on a stone table in Li Suyin’s home, her chin pillowed on her arms. She was covered only in a couple of towels, something that would normally have bothered her greatly, but it was amazing how small crippling agony made those kinds of concerns seem.

Li Suyin sighed as she finished placing the medicine-coated needles along the curve of Ling Qi’s lower spine, eyeing their placements carefully before turning away to reach for a meticulously labeled clay vial. “I cannot believe that you suffered not even a single backlash when breaking through to the second realm,” she said incredulously.

“Was easy,” Ling Qi muttered, closing her eyes. Bright light still hurt her eyes. “Didn’t know it would hurt so much.”

“It was a fairly severe backlash,” Li Suyin allowed. Ling Qi heard the sound of sloshing liquid then felt something wet pour across her shoulders. The scent of flowers reached her nose. Li Suyin’s dainty hands pressed against her shoulder blades and… That felt really good. She slumped against the table as Li Suyin massaged painfully tense muscle into submission, pushing back the bone-deep pain still throbbing in her dantian. “You are lucky I was still home,” she admonished.

“Lucky,” Ling Qi agreed, the sound of her own voice made her giggle a little. It was simply funny for some reason. Li Suyin was really good at this. She would have to never mention it to Meizhen; Meizhen would probably be mad. “Books… said it would hurt but not how much.”

“Cultivation texts do take such things for granted,” Li Suyin sighed. Her amazing, magical hands were making Ling Qi sleepy, and it was hard to focus on her words. “Next… some numbing…”

Ling Qi sank into blissful slumber. When she awoke, she was back home in bed with Zhengui hunkered down in her doorway, watching the door intently. She could sense Meizhen out in the living room as well.

As Zhengui noticed her awakening, he practically shot to her side, his two voices babbling over each other in concern. She had to stop him from trying to climb her bed and breaking it by sliding off to wrap her arms around his stubby neck and murmur comforting words.

Despite that, she didn’t miss the little, meticulously labeled clay bottle on the table next to her bed. It looked like she wouldn’t have to worry about bothering Li Suyin again if her breakthrough failed again. Because she wasn’t giving up.

She also wasn’t going to let Li Suyin keep helping her for free either. She had a whole pile of pills and elixirs that were going to shortly be useless to her when she succeeded. Why not give those to her friend?

Once she had calmed Zhengui down, she set off determinedly for the vent. She may have missed the afternoon and night, but that didn’t mean she had to miss her training with Su Ling. She could cultivate back to peak and be back to attempting to break through by evening.

Li Suyin and Su Ling seemed surprised to see her.

“Should you really be up already?” her friend asked the moment she emerged from the trees. Li Suyin sat with her back against a tree, the pale manual open in her lap.

Su Ling was meditating closer to the vent and didn’t voice her concern. She simply looked her up and down before giving her a respectful nod.

“I’m fine,” Ling Qi replied, directing the sentiment at both Li Suyin and the spirit dematerialized in her dantian. “I just got surprised and overwhelmed for a bit there.”

“Heard your turtle had to carry you,” Su Ling commented dryly.

Ling Qi flushed. “Like I said, surprised. I am not going to stop just for that. There’s only a few months until the tournament.”

Li Suyin regarded her with some concern. “If you are sure. Please take it easy for a bit longer though.”

“That’s the plan,” Ling Qi agreed, seating herself beside her friend. “So, what’s next in the manual?”

Su Ling shook her head and returned to meditating. She had been working on her cultivation now that she was satisfied with her sword skill.

“Well, the next several formations are unsavory at best, so I’ve put them aside for the moment. The next useful one is the… Black Loam Gargant.” The blue-haired girl grimaced as she looked down at the pages, which held an illustration of a vaguely humanoid mass of bones, dirt, and stone standing next to a sketched humanoid figure which barely rose to its ankle. The illustration seemed to indicate that the creator was meant to … ride inside it?

“I’m not sure where we can get that many bones, but it seems pretty great,” Ling Qi said, studying the text around the illustration. “What’s the catch?”

“The upkeep costs would be unsustainable. Without the sacrificial methods described in the rest of the book, it would take roughly fifty yellow stones just to activate for a minute or so. I am also quite certain that it would take a third realm cultivator to control it at all.”

“Let’s leave that as a maybe for the tournament then,” Ling Qi muttered. That was almost half of her take from Sun Liling. Would a giant construct even be allowed? “Can we adapt any of the bad ones to be more useful?”

“The intervening formations require sacrifices of heartsblood and, um, soul binding,” Li Suyin answered uncomfortably. “Thankfully, the text in those sections is also irreparably damaged. I believe we could develop further advancements from our current formations though. In particular, there is an advanced form of the ossuary scout formation that allows one to command a much larger number, and at need, combine them into a combatant…”

Ling Qi remembered the booming caw of the crow thing she and Su Ling had avoided. Going by the way the girl’s ears twitched, so did Su Ling.

“That sounds good,” Ling Qi agreed. “I’ve actually been toying with some ideas for improving those. I think I figured out how to improve the memory storage.”

“Really? I had a few ideas, but if you could show me…” Li Suyin began excitedly, expressing a sheet of paper and pressing it into Ling Qi’s hands.

Ling Qi sketched out her ideas on the paper, and the two girls fell to studying and improving their work. Unsavory rituals were forgotten for the moment. Together, they began to rapidly work out other tweaks and workarounds to the missing sections of the manual that could make the scouts better and the formation more effective.

Ling Qi spent most of the morning with her head full of numbers as she carefully cultivated back to the peak. Her efforts to solve the puzzle box went slowly. Ling Qi was able to figure out that she could extend both the song and the timer through certain moves, but the final configuration continued to escape her.

Eventually, her friends had to depart, and after some argument, Ling Qi convinced Li Suyin to accept a gift of raided medicines for her help. Ling Qi departed as well to continue working on her breakthrough.

Ling Qi followed the instructions on Li Suyin’s medicine precisely, preparing the meditation chamber with the proper incense and seating herself on a comfortable mat before taking a tiny dose of the clear, slightly viscous medicine. Almost immediately, she felt her eyelids drooping, but she did not allow herself to fall asleep. She swallowed down the two breakthrough medicines she had found in the shaman’s pouch. Then she closed her eyes and turned her thoughts inward as she began to once again cycle her qi, letting the medicine aid her in leaving physical concerns behind.

She took it slow this time. Where before she had cycled quickly and surged forward, eagerly seeking to break her limits, she now focused on gathering a bit of energy at a time. Each time she breathed in, taking in qi, she held it tightly in her channels, not allowing it to escape as it was naturally inclined to do. Slowly, she began to once again test her limits, and this time, her focus paid off.

There were, for lack of a better word, cracks, almost imperceptible ones, in the barrier which separated her from further cultivation. She allowed her qi to seep into them, spirit and will probing for weakness, and in what seemed like no time at all, the cracks widened, expanding until they consumed the barrier in its entirety.

Ling Qi paused for a time, her awareness of the outside world fading entirely into the beat of her heart and the pulse of her qi. She floated, formless in her own thoughts as her qi pulsed and expanded, stretching toward the final limit of the second realm.

As her awareness was subsumed entirely into her pulsing qi, she found herself within a vision. In it, she sat on a high cliff overlooking a lake. Below her stretched a misty vale, silent under the light of the moon.

The vale was a lively place with lush wood at its shore. She could see a bonfire under its eaves, and she was sure her friends were waiting. A little village sat at the opposite shore, the tiny lights casting long shadows. In the center of the lake sat an island, tall, narrow and mountainous, stretching high toward the clouds as if to grasp the silver moon. From its peak came a familiar tune.

Ling Qi found herself standing, looking over the vale, filled with the urge to move.

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