Ling Qi sighed as she crouched in the shadow of a rooftop display. Cries of alarm were just beginning to rise up from the homes of those she had struck at. Here, in the dead of night, she was nearly invisible, a shadow among shadows.
The favor Fu Xiang had asked of her was done. But although she had slipped into the three workshops with nearly trivial ease and only the last of them having a security array that offered her even the slightest trouble, Ling Qi could not say that she felt particularly successful. She had followed Fu Xiang’s instructions on sabotaging the projects in question in a manner that would implicate a fellow crafts competitor. It wasn’t even incorrect in a way.
A beautifully crafted and half-finished sword, months worth of work put into its formation enhancements, was effaced, a few scribbled lines sending the incomplete work into cascading failure. A potent elixir in the midst of its long straining period was poisoned, ruining the ingredients.
The third target was probably the worst off. For all that she hadn’t touched their project, she had planted subtle evidence, provided by Fu Xiang, of their hand in the destruction of their rivals’ works. The brush that had effaced the sword and the remaining poison sprinkled in the elixir were now firmly planted in hidden drawers within his work tables for the market’s investigators to discover.
She didn’t like this.
Although she enjoyed the thrill and challenge of a difficult heist, this was different, deliberately ruining the chances of those who had done her no harm. She had chosen her targets from among Fu Xiang’s list, skipping over Su Ling’s portly friend and a few other commonborn in favor of noble aspirants. They would have other opportunities at least, something to fall back on.
Or so she told herself.
Ling Qi slipped away from the shadows, leaving the sounds in the market behind. She had a meeting with Fu Xiang to get to. If anyone looked into her presence, she had been at the boy’s
cottage, discussing intelligence matters for the evening. The potent anti-clairvoyance charm hanging from her wrist would ensure that the story held up.
However, much as she might not like having done this… It was done now. She had repaid Fu Xiang for his help in the flight from Sun Liling. She shook her head as she vanished into the treeline, the notes of a sad, thoughtful composition forming in her thoughts. She had to put her own - and those of her allies’ and friends’ - interests first.
By the following morning, news of the sabotage had spread. Ling Qi spent most of the day indoors, toying with her moon gifted puzzle box and thinking. Working on the puzzle box was a meditative exercise in itself, such was its complexity. With dozens of moving parts once she had set off the music, she could afford little attention to the thoughts still troubling her. Four times, she reached the end of the timer, concentration and determination growing each time as the slowly expanding box snapped back into its starting cube shape. Her hands blurred with the speed at which she moved the pieces, sliding, twisting, and repositioning them into the patterns that had proven successful before even as her thoughts raced ahead to discover the next move.
Finally, she solved it. With a snap, the last piece unfolded under her eyes, and the tune reached its finish. What had once been a puzzle box was now a thin sheet of solid silver, wide enough to cover most of the dining room table. As she watched, symbols and lines swam across its surface, the patterns she had been using to solve the puzzle reconfiguring themselves.
When it finally grew solid, what lay before her was an incredibly detailed map of the region around the Sect. Hills were bumps under her fingers, mountains rose sharply from the silver surface, and color bled into the map, staining the vast forests a deep emerald green.
Deep within those forests, several kilometers from the village at the base of the mountain, close to the edge of the limits the Sect set upon its disciples, a lonely, half-crumbled tower rose, glowing with a cheerful pink light. ... It seemed that she wasn’t quite done with Xin’s gift yet. Xin seemed to like making her work for her rewards.
For now, she would just have to store her new map away and remember to look into a few other interesting looking locations she had spotted when glancing over it. She had a lesson with Zeqing to attend.
“What do you mean?” Ling Qi asked. They stood at the entrance to the small ravine which held the black pool, ready to head in and begin their lessons - or so she had thought.
“I mean exactly what I said,” the spirit floating beside her said calmly, her black gown billowing in the breeze. “I will not teach you the next steps to the Forgotten Vale Melody yet.”
“Why not?” Ling Qi asked, trying not to sound petulant as the spirit drifted ahead of her. “I’ve reviewed the jade slip. I can somewhat understand the next section now. I’m sure I can learn it with your instruction.”
“Perhaps,” Zeqing replied, turning to face her on an icy breeze. “But it would be an understanding lacking mastery. In your incomplete state, you cannot advance it properly.”
Ling Qi felt frustrated. “How so? Forgotten Vale Melody isn’t a physical art, and I’ve broken through in my spiritual cultivation.”
Zeqing considered her, blank white eyes searching her face as she slowly drifted backward to hover over the frozen pool. “I am told that you humans treat the third realm as an important benchmark and rite of passage. Have you never been instructed as to why?”
“I was a mortal a year ago, so no,” Ling Qi replied, her expression softening. “Is this another one of those things that perhaps everyone assumes that I know?”
“Perhaps,” Zeqing repeated. “Have you felt it since your partial ascendance? The feeling of incompleteness?”
Ling Qi shook her head, trying to recall something that would match Zeqing’s words. “No, I haven’t,” she admitted. “I only broke through a short time before coming to visit you.”
Snow swirled around Zeqing as a hand of clear ice formed from the emptiness of her sleeve to cup her chin thoughtfully. “I see. Then perhaps my presence overwhelmed it?” she mused. “I shall withdraw. When I do, focus your qi outward, as you do when forming the mist.”
Ling Qi wasn’t certain what the problem was, but she would trust Zeqing. She flicked her wrist, withdrawing her flute from her ring and waited patiently for Zeqing to leave.
Surprisingly, the spirit did not move an inch, but all the same, Ling Qi felt something change. The air did not get colder or warmer, despite the snow now drifting quietly down from the sky. It was just different… empty in a way the upper peaks of the mountain had never felt before.
It set her nerves on edge. All the same, Zeqing was watching her, so she raised her flute to her lips, not to summon mist but as a focus for the exercise. She began to play something light and simple, using the melody to focus the cycling of her qi as she pushed it out through her channels. A breeze kicked up around her, sending the hem of her gown billowing, and faint sparkles of silvery light flew from the holes in her flute.
Ling Qi focused herself outward, as she did when trying to sense distant qi. She continued to push her qi, wincing at the way she felt her reserves draining.
For a moment, she felt a strange awareness of her surroundings, of every snowflake within a meter, of every current of air. She was the stone under her feet, the snowflakes crusting her hair, and even the air carrying the mundane notes of her music. She felt a strain then, as if she were wearing a dress three sizes too small, squeezing down and stealing her breath.
She doubled over, clutching her head as a splitting headache shattered what little remained of her concentration. Ling Qi shuddered in relief as the feeling that had been missing flooded back into the environment. “What was that?” she gasped out, the sound of her own heartbeat thundering in her ears.
“Your incomplete domain,” Zeqing answered, and Ling Qi felt an icy hand press down on her back, a brief comfort before it was withdrawn. “Humans must struggle to attain that which is natural.”
“I don’t understand,” Ling Qi said, straightening up. She was glad she had left Zhengui at home. At this distance, he would not have felt her discomfort.
“Do you imagine that this is my body?” Zeqing asked patiently, gesturing down at herself. At Ling Qi’s uncomprehending look, she continued, “A mortal would not even see this form. Did you ever see a spirit before coming here?”
Ling Qi had heard the voices in the wind and the things that skittered in dark places, whispering of spilled blood and vice, but she could truthfully say that she had never seen a spirit as a mortal. “Where is your body then? Is it at your house with Hanyi?”
“You are standing within it,” Zeqing explained, as if that made sense. “Have the snows ever ceased in your time on the peak?” she asked pointedly. “Although my ability to apply a human level of attention may be limited to a single manifestation, I am all around you from the mountain’s peak to the lowest point the snow touches.”
Ling Qi’s face scrunched up in confusion. “I don’t really understand how that works. Are all higher realm cultivators… like that?”
Zeqing dissolved in a flurry of snowflakes, reappearing at the stone bench where they practiced. “No. Humans have a myriad paths available to them. Some, like beasts, focus themselves inward, their domains and their physical forms becoming one inviolate whole. Some walk the path of the spirit and abandon physical shape almost entirely. In the end though, the mark of truly advanced cultivation is an absolute command of one’s domain and the concepts it follows, and it is the third realm which allows humans to touch upon the power of a domain.”
It sounded as if truly powerful cultivators and spirits were almost a world unto themselves. Ling Qi remembered Elder Ying’s story of the great spirits. She thought of Elder Jiao and the eye-studded shadows that flickered into existence with his will. It made sense, but the idea unsettled her.
“What does any of that have to do with not learning the Melody?” Ling Qi asked, determined to stay on track.
“Like many potent techniques, it is merely the simplification of an aspect of the domain that man formed for himself,” Zeqing elaborated. “While you could learn it as you are, it will be more potent and refined if practiced in tandem with the formation of your own domain and greater self.”
It was annoying to delay her development, Ling Qi thought, as she moved to sit down on the icy seat beside Zeqing. “So what do you want to do instead then? Will we just play normally?”
Zeqing hummed, a playful smile forming. “I had thought we might begin some other lessons. It would not do for a musician to have but a single song in their repertoire.”
Ling Qi blinked in surprise, not quite believing what was being implied.. “Do you mean…?”
Zeqing nodded serenely. “I believe your nature is suitable for my own songs.”
Ling Qi couldn’t help but grin. An art taught directly by a cyan spirit, and one nearing the peak of that realm at that, was an incredible treasure. “Thank you very much, Master Zeqing,” she bowed her head low. If there was any time to be formal, it was now.
Zeqing cocked her head to the side, her hair billowing in the constant wind. “A pleasing title. I have spent some time deciding how my abilities might be translated to something useful for you. I have created two compositions which are suitable. However, you will need to choose one. Learning both would risk… contamination of your identity at this early stage.”
Ling Qi’s expression grew somber as she straightened up. She wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but Zeqing’s grave tone was enough for her to take it seriously. “Do I have the choice then?”
“You do,” she replied. “The first is the song of the Lonely Winter Maiden. It is a melody which embodies the seductive nature of death in the cold, the warmth which, if surrendered to, will bring the end of life. With it, you may draw those around you near and drink deep of their life and qi to restore yourself.”
Ling Qi frowned. She wasn’t certain if she liked that. Some part of her balked at the idea of using an art which in any way embodied “seductiveness.”
“The second,” Zeqing continued, “is the Frozen Soul Serenade. It is a more primal and direct song. It is winter at its most harsh. It is biting chill and scouring winds, a merciless end which snuffs out all sparks of warmth. However, it may be somewhat more difficult for a human to master.”
Ling Qi didn’t have to think very long. She remembered her match with Yan Renshu’s spirit beast where her bow had failed and she had been forced to cobble together a formless attack with her flute. She already had Forgotten Vale Melody to confuse and beguile.
Right now, she needed power.