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When she returned to the meditation room the next day, it was with a refreshed body and mind, despite a slight nervous feeling from when she overheard some of the girls in the residential district talking about a strange spirit wandering around asking strange questions. It seemed like some people were thinking it was some odd test from the Elders, like a wandering trial… Sixiang wouldn’t cause too much trouble. Hopefully.

She let that worry go as she sealed the meditation chamber and sat down, ready to finish her breakthrough.

This time, there was no recoil, only the smooth melding of her qi with her body and a feeling of lightness as if she had just taken off a dress that was three sizes too small. When she opened her eyes, she found herself caked in impurity of course, a stinking mess of black gunk that needed to be scrubbed from her skin with the cloth and water she had prepared for just that.

If her second realm breakthrough had left her unblemished, this one had simply made her… more. Looking at herself in the mirror, it was hard to pin down exact changes. Her skin remained just as dusky as ever, and she remained tall and thin without much in the way of feminine charm. Yet her eyes burned an icy blue like chips of glacial rime, and she thought her features looked a little more mature, stripped of their last vestiges of childish softness.

Her hair, wet from washing and mostly unstyled, was still wild and curly, but it no longer seemed quite so frayed or frizzy. Instead, her hair seemed sleek and dark, drinking in the dim light of the meditation room and reflecting nothing despite now hanging down to the middle of her back. In fact, as she toyed with the ends of her bangs, did it seem a little blue-ish? It was more of a midnight blue than Suyin’s lighter shade. With rising suspicion, she began to cycle her qi, letting cool darkness flow through her meridians and sure enough, she caught faint twinkling sparkles like dim stars in her hair.

... She wasn’t sure if that was embarrassing or cool.

Some part of her lamented the fact that she still wasn’t really beautiful, but at least she could now qualify for striking? She had even gained another centimeter or two in height.

Shaking her head, Ling Qi turned away from the mirror and began to get dressed. That was enough vanity for the moment. She had still lost another day to breakthrough, and she had a few errands to run before Meizhen invited her out for their discussion.

***

“Congratulations,” Han Jian said lightly as she landed lightly in the training field he and Han Fang had been sparring in. He had spotted her coming from above well before she arrived, and the two boys had broken off their fight to greet her. “A full breakthrough to the third realm in less than a year isn’t anything to scoff at.”

“Thank you,” Ling Qi replied, glad to see that her invitations to Xiulan to go with her to the White Room hadn’t strained relations with the rest of Golden Field. “It looks like you’re doing very well too,” she added politely. He and Han Fang were both fully in the late stage of the second realm now.

“Ha! I’m not so sure about that.” Han Jian shook his head. He glanced over at Han Fang, who nodded back once before heading for the entrance to the training yard. Ling Qi watched him go for a moment. She had never gotten to know the silent boy, and she regretted that a little. He seemed like a reliable sort. “I honestly don’t see myself breaking through before time runs out, so I’ve decided to more fully develop my arts.”

“Breaking through is definitely time consuming,” Ling Qi said with a grimace. “I feel like I’ve hardly done anything for the past month.”

Han Jian gave her a wry look, and she glanced away, embarrassed. Complaining about spending a month in breakthrough seemed really petty.

“You might want to prepare yourself for the future then. There are bottlenecks in the third realm that will take you months to break through, unless you’ve been hiding a legendary talent to match the Duchess Cai,” he said in a light tone.

“Fun,” Ling Qi deadpanned. “I guess the easy part is over, huh?”

“Probably best to think of it that way,” Han Jian agreed. “Third realm is the highest the vast majority of cultivators can aspire to, even among the talented.”

“Neither of us is going to stop there though, are we?” Ling Qi asked. “Not you, or Han Fang, or Gu Xiulan,” she added thoughtfully. “No one I know really.” Su Ling and Li Suyin might not be as talented, but she doubted either would simply stop either. “Is the third realm really where people stop?”

“The higher you rise, the more time cultivation takes, and people have other responsibilities and interests,” Han Jian explained, heading toward the edge of the field. “Not everyone has the ambition and dedication to keep pushing through years or decades of tiny gains. Besides, most people don’t really need higher cultivation.”

Ling Qi struggled to imagine simply… settling, knowing that there was still such a vast gulf between yourself and the top, so many people and things which could still trample you effortlessly. “Well, less competition is good, I guess,” she said after a moment. “Anyway, I thought I’d ask about how you all are doing.”

“Xiulan hasn’t exactly been sociable,” he said sadly. “She’s at least being safe about her training now, but she is pushing hard. Thanks for taking her to the White Room by the way. I can’t really do so without a lot of… awkwardness.”

“I understand,” Ling Qi replied with a nod. “But I’m not just concerned about Xiulan.”

“Kind of you,” he shot back as he plucked a wooden training sword from the rack and gestured for her to follow him out into the field. “Fang and I aren’t giving up. Even if we don’t reach the third realm, we’re still aiming for Inner Sect at the New Year Tournament,” he continued resolutely. “... I worry about Fan Yu though. He…”

“He probably feels like it’s hopeless,” Ling Qi finished.

“Yeah,” Han Jian said simply. “Yu is a good guy at heart, but I’m worried he’s going to crash and burn. I’m trying to keep his spirits up, but there’s only so much I can do if he doesn’t want it himself.”

So about what she expected then. Han Jian and Han Fang would both be solidly late second realm, perhaps even peak, but Fan Yu was still struggling to reach the middle last she saw. Xiulan had been at peak spiritual the last she saw her, and her physical cultivation had just reached late.

“There was actually something else. We can spar and talk though, if you’d like.”

“Sure, what’s the question?” Han Jian asked, giving the practice blade in his hand a few lazy swipes, the wind stirring around him.

Ling Qi, on the other hand, fell into a defensive stance, calling up the qi of Argent Mirror’s mountain and lake to center herself. “I was hoping you could tell me more about Golden Fields. I have an offer regarding it.”

Han Jian studied her, brows furrowed, examining her with more than his eyes. She in turn felt carefully for the fluctuations in his qi as his limbs blurred under tight sleeves of swirling air. “Ah, you're actually considering it? Given your other connections, I’m a little surprised.”

“I want to know all that I can about every choice I have,” Ling Qi answered.

“Well, it’s not like I mind talking about home,” he said, shrugging his shoulders slightly.

So, as they began testing one another's defenses, Han Jian began to speak.

The Golden Fields was a land of patchworks. The territories of the clans were far less organic and similarly, far less competitive. Few major clans shared a border with another, although that was beginning to change in the westernmost lands, which had begun to regain their old character as fertile fields. Most of the habitable land was still scrub and desert so the traditions born in the wake of the fall were still maintained.

Most clans fell into one of two categories: sedentary or nomadic. The Fan, for example, were a sedentary clan because during the fall, their patriarch had pulled their core lands deep underground and shielded it from the Purifying Sun’s death with his body. Although they had been much reduced, the Fan maintained a rich, flowering oasis from which to rebuild.

On the other hand, the Han and the ruling ducal clan, the Guo, were nomadic. The Han household traveled regularly along a fixed route through their territory in a great caravan, administering their smaller but more numerous settlements.

Ling Qi was a little dubious about his description of the ducal clan. Even with all she had seen, a great citadel carried on the back of a colossal scorpion seemed a little far-fetched.

That aside though, Han Jian made no effort to conceal the fact that the Golden Fields was a harsh place. The further east one went, the more toxic and poisonous the lands outside a clan’s territory became. The earth itself was tainted with sun and death qi. Cultivators below the third realm who ventured out unprotected into the poison sands could quickly sicken and die, their meridians catching fire and their flesh rotting from their bones. Even higher cultivators could grow ill without regular cleansing. It took great effort from the clans to maintain their borders and prevent the poison from spreading back into cleansed lands, which was why actual expansion was a generational affair.

Still, Golden Fields was a rich land. The same effect which had reduced the soil to ash had created great veins of qi-rich ores and gemstones in the stone, and these days, such ores and gemstones were in high demand in the interior provinces, being useful for all manner of high-end formation work and talisman crafting. Quite a few clans which were only a few generations old had grown influential and wealthy off such finds under the aegis of the greater clans.

Such wealth was sorely needed for defenses because the desert was not content to simply passively poison the land. Ashwalkers - she remembered hearing about several times before - were foul, dead things born from the toxic qi of the sands. They were little more dangerous than normal predatory spirit beasts in small numbers, but they had to be promptly cleansed from any land they were discovered in. If they weren’t, they would gather in numbers out in the wastes, rallied by their more intelligent kin, skeletal abominations animated by the wrathful wraiths of those who had died in the fall, driven mad by the toxic qi.

At their worst, these mobs could be akin to ancient Imperial armies sweeping out of the waste, but that was rare. More often, they behaved more like bandits, roving bands of murderous marauders that sought to break the land-cleansing totems and destroy settlements.

It was unsettling, Ling Qi had to admit, but the more she learned about the world outside Tonghou, the more she came to understand that there was no safety on any of the borders of the Empire.

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A note from Yrsillar

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Gonna be a double today, there's an interlude chapter paired with this one.


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Yrsillar

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