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Ling Qi had a pressing matter to deal with. Sixiang had been getting into some trouble in the residences on the boys’ side, apparently traumatizing boys by popping in at bad times. Han Jian had given her the tip in passing, but he hadn’t specified what exactly the moon spirit had done.

Tracking down the moon spirit wasn’t too hard thankfully, if only because Sixiang didn’t seem to be hiding her trail, which hung in the air like a strong perfume. Said trail eventually led Ling Qi out to the location of what had been the first of Yan Renshu’s hideouts she had hit, the one from which she had stolen her pill furnace.

Ling Qi approached the now-revealed entrance carefully. In the end though, it was for naught as Sixiang materialized in the tree branches above her head and waved with a cheerful expression.

“You’ve gotten things cleared up, I see,” the spirit chirped, sparkling black eyes crinkling. “See, isn’t communication great?”

“Are you sure you’re a Dreaming Moon spirit and not a Twinned one?” Ling Qi shot back dryly, the misty blackness fading from her skin as she abandoned her attempt at stealth. “I still don’t appreciate the setup.”

“It’s all a matter of expression in the end. I’d think you would understand that there aren’t hard definitions by now,” Sixiang replied playfully, sticking out a tongue. “Even if you’re mad, I don’t regret it. I might not fully understand all the ways humans divide up love and affection,” the spirit continued, nose wrinkling, “but you needed to straighten things out. It looks like you decided to make her and yourself sad though.”

Sixiang wasn’t wrong, but it still irked her that she’d been prodded into doing it by someone else… though she couldn’t really tell if she was mad at herself or the spirit for that. “She is my friend, but I couldn’t return her feelings. Those are two different things entirely.”

“Are they?” Sixiang asked, head cocking to the side. “Humans sure do love their divisions. Isn’t love just love?”

“Of course not,” Ling Qi replied, incredulous. “There’s no way you cannot know that.”

“I suppose,” Sixiang allowed. “I don’t really understand where the lines are though. Humans contradict themselves a lot, even in their dreams. You’d think you could be honest in your own heads at least!”

“I can’t really disagree with that.” Ling Qi sighed. “But are you really saying you think…” She cast around for an example. “... what you feel for your parents is the same as what you feel for a friend or… a guy you like the look of?”

Sixiang hummed thoughtfully. “I’m part of all my Mothers and Grandmothers, so that’s different. Even if I call them that though, I don’t think I really have ‘parents’ in the way you think of it. I don’t understand why a friend shouldn’t also be a lover though or why you wouldn’t want them to be.”

“... Not doing this right now,” Ling Qi sighed, shaking her head. “Anyway, please stop causing trouble in the Sect. You can stay and ask people questions, but please don’t invade anyone’s home or surprise them in private.”

“Well, if they didn’t want company, why wouldn’t they put up proper barriers?” Sixiang huffed, looking a little miffed. “There was no call for all that shouting and whatnot.”

“I’m sure they overreacted,” Ling Qi replied, lying through her teeth. “But please follow my request.”

“Well, since it's you, I guess I can do that.” Sixiang sighed, leaning back. Ling Qi twitched as the spirit pitched off the back of the tree branch, knees bending and spine contorting unnaturally to remain looking at Ling Qi. She supposed realistic spines were optional on spirits. “This is all very interesting.”

“What are you doing anyway, bugging people at random?” Ling Qi asked, trying not to pay attention to the angle the spirit’s neck was bent at.

“I’ve never talked to humans who were awake before,” Sixiang replied. “I am a… muse? I think you call me that. I enter into dreams to grant inspiration. Grandmother gave me a body for the party, along with all of my sisters, but I only got to keep it because you spent all night chatting me up. So now I have a few months to have some fun.” Sixiang grinned then released their grasp on the tree, twisting in midair to land on their feet in blatant defiance of gravity.

Ling Qi frowned. She knew she shouldn’t judge spirits as if they were human, but…

“Don’t you start feeling all responsible,” the spirit chided. “I’m having fun, and there’s nothing wrong with living in dreams. You shouldn’t get so bogged down worrying about the future. Isn’t it the present moments that matter?

“That’s a really careless way of thinking,” Ling Qi retorted with a huff, shooting the spirit an unimpressed look. “You have to worry about the future so the moments to come will be better.”

“Ugh, logic,” Sixiang said, making a face. “Don’t be like that.”

“You really are carefree, aren’t you,” Ling Qi replied, voice dry as she crossed her arms.

Sixiang nodded agreeably. “Yup! I was going to name myself ‘impulse,’ you know? But I didn’t like the way the word sounded.”

“... Just stick to the public areas please,” Ling Qi said.

“Sure, sure, I’ll be good,” Sixiang said airily, not reassuring her at all. “Public areas just means outside, right?” she then asked, sounding uncertain.

“Yes, but if someone invites you in,” Ling Qi answered, emphasizing the word invite, “you can go inside.”

She was pretty sure the spirit understood. She would just have to hope that Sixiang kept their word.

***

Ling Qi spent much of the rest of the day putting Liao Zhu’s advice into practice in regards to her new art, Phantasmagoria of Lunar Revelry. She practiced both the physical steps and movements, as well as the flows of qi.

After, she began to meditate and bring herself once more to that nowhere place in the center of eight silvery reflections. This time, three of the moon phases called to her. The first, the Dreaming Moon, rippled with color, and she saw herself standing before all of her friends and many others, her flute at her lips. Then she saw herself, as the host of the party, moving among them, smoothing over disagreements, and keeping the atmosphere of the party light.

The second, the darkest one representing the hidden depths of the New Moon, called. There were no faces here, only a flash of the map Xin had gifted her and a single spot of darkness yawning like a pit in the face of one of the carved mountains. It swallowed her up, and Ling Qi found herself deep underground before a pool of liquid darkness within which something gleamed.

The last, surprisingly, was the gentle bright light of the Mother Moon. In that light, she saw Zhengui as he was when he had been playing with Hanyi in the snow. The image subtly shifted, and she saw her little spirit happy and content with Hanyi perched on his back and indistinct but somehow childlike figures all around.

In the end, though she wavered, Ling Qi chose to go with the Hidden Moon’s quest. Not only was Xin the root of many of her successes and a person she liked besides, but also Ling Qi was more free at the Sect than she ever had been before. If she couldn’t indulge herself in curiosity now, then when could she? Perhaps exploration of her curiosity would even help her curb her tendency toward tunnel vision and missing things on the periphery of her interests. Her choices didn’t solely have to be about who she was after all. They could be about who she wanted to be.

With her cultivation done for the day, Ling Qi headed down to the main office of the Sect office once again. She planned on making back the points she had spent purchasing her tutoring from Sect Brother Liao this week.

Ling Qi had had her eye on one particular Sect mission for some time - a simple exorcism job that would allow her to scope out the location of the tournament at the same time. Thankfully, the mission was still available - according to the Sect official handling the distribution of jobs, the clean up of the grounds was nearly complete.

The journey out to the venue itself was uneventful. The tournament grounds lay several kilometers to the east of the Outer Sect mountain at the flattened top of a high rocky hill. A wide, well paved path split off from the main road carving its way east from the Sect village and wound its way to the top where the tournament grounds lay.

The outer structures looked like a great horseshoe from above. Their lowest reaches were taken up by comfortably appointed public spectator space, interrupted by private boxes, which increased in frequency and opulence the higher the structure rose. At the end of the horseshoe was a building with a great tented roof of gleaming silver shingles that resembled the Sect’s main office in the Outer Sect.

At the center of the structures lay the stages themselves, four huge rectangles of white stone with stylized pillars that rose to pointed peaks a dozen meters up in each corner. Each stage was a good two hundred meters in length, and radiated a solid aura of earth and mountain qi. Ling Qi doubted she could so much as chip a single fragment from their stonework.

She was supposed to meet the official in charge of the cleaning work at the large building, but Ling Qi set down on the upper right stage to have a little look around first. The fighting stages were utterly alike and without feature, but the pillars proved a bit more interesting. Embedded in their sides were fist-sized gemstones with hundreds of facets - diamonds, if she had to guess - which flickered with faint, multi-colored light on close inspection. Of course, there was only a single visible character on each formation: ‘Light’, ‘Sound’, ‘Touch’, ‘Weight’, ‘Scent’, and others still. She was fairly certain she was looking at a highly complex formations array. It may even be something like what Elder Jiao had set up in Elder Zhou’s test. Ling Qi didn’t linger too much longer though. Whatever the array was, it was as far beyond her skill as Elder Jiao was.

Casting one last glance back at the massive gemstones, Ling Qi left the stages and headed down the tiled path leading to the large building at the far end of the complex. She met the Sect official in charge, a slightly graying man in the third stage of the third realm, just inside the building in a wide lobby that looked as if it could hold at least two hundred people at once in reasonable comfort.

The man offered her a respectful bow in greeting as she entered, which she returned politely. “Sect Sister Ling, thank you for your acceptance of this duty.”

“I am somewhat surprised that it remained available for this long,” Ling Qi admitted, straightening up from her bow. “The fighting stages seemed to be in perfect condition though, and I saw no flaw in the stands either.”

The man nodded at the implied question. “The majority of the work is complete,” he said evenly, straightening his own posture. “Only the basement floor of this building, which comprises the waiting area for those who have failed and the medical facilities, remain to be cleansed.”

That shouldn't be too hard. Curious, she asked the man, “How many participants are expected that a whole floor would be needed for the losing participants, Sect Brother?”

“Two hundred or so, I would expect,” the official replied, raising a greying eyebrow. “Most will be eliminated in the qualifying round of course, but few would throw away their chance for glory before so many spectators.”

That was more participants than Ling Qi expected. That would be a really long tournament though, wouldn’t it? The man had answered though, so perhaps she could gain some more information.

“Sect Brother, before I begin my duties,” she inquired politely, “might I ask how the tournament is structured? No one has actually said exactly how it will work…”

The older man furrowed his brows. “Well, it is not hidden knowledge,” he replied slowly. After a brief moment of consideration, he answered, “Disciples will be divided into eight, roughly equal groups, four of which will engage in battle on the stages until two remain in each ring. Then the remaining groups will do the same. With sixteen disciples remaining, the elimination duels will begin the following day. Disciples who have lost are confined to the lower floor until the completion of the tournament in order to prevent any unfortunate accidents.”

Ling Qi nodded in understanding. She had half-expected the entire thing to be a series of elimination duels, but it made sense. The Sect was a military force too, and group stages gave those with less direct skillsets a chance to show off and potentially secure a place as they would only have to win one elimination round. It added some uncertainty and luck to the process, but even duelists needed to be able to survive in a general melee. And, well, she doubted spectators had the patience or time to watch the number of duels required for a tournament full of elimination duels.

“I see. Thank you for explaining, Sect Brother,” she said gratefully. “Would you explain then what is required of me?”

Her duty was simple. She just had to disperse the various low grade spirits which had formed down in the basement and activate the cleaning talismans she was provided with for the more mundane work. The task was not a terribly dangerous one at her level of cultivation, but it was time-consuming and tedious.

It was also, she found, an uncomfortable one. The moment she descended the stairs to the first basement level, the temperature dropped noticeably, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose at the prickling feeling of being watched. Much like her time cleansing the forest, Ling Qi found half-formed whispers tickling her ears, and the oily feeling of loss and despair clogged the air.

Failed.

Shamed the clan.

Father will kill me...

My last chance…!

Failed Failed Failed Failed Failed Failed

failedfailedfailedfailedfailed -

FAILURE.

The cloying aura of this place clawed at her thoughts, cold and depressing, but Ling Qi gritted her teeth and circulated her qi, keeping Argent Mirror primed and active. The tranquility brought by the art allowed her to proceed serenely through the dim, echoing hall where disciples who had lost were brought for medical attention or to await the ending ceremonies.

Ling Qi descended into the shadowy basement in complete silence, little more than a drifting shadow as she lightly crossed the polished wooden floor.

The shadowy shapes which clung to the many pillars of the underground hall did not stir as she passed them by, although the aura of unrestrained self-loathing and despair they exuded tingled across her thoughts, nipping at the edges of her qi. With her arts and cultivation, the clinging, emotional weight slid from her without harm, so Ling Qi proceeded deeper into the hall, mapping it out in her mind, noting where the highest concentrations of the spirits were.

They were twisted things, blurry, half-melted images of boys and girls her own age or a bit older bleeding into one another and staring with empty black eyes as they whispered their mantras of failure again and again. Some seemed more solid than others, but none seemed more real than a particularly thick clump of fog.

When she had mapped everything out, Ling Qi let out a breath and drew her knives. They hadn’t seen much use since she had purchased them, but her archery was too loud for this, as was her flute, so she fell back on her very first weapons.

... It definitely didn’t have anything to do with the cool knife tricks she had caught her tutor doing out of the corner of her eye when she meditated.

The wraiths were not particularly resilient and dispersed easily with a single well-placed blow, but they did have, to her senses, anywhere from early to peak second realm cultivation and numbers. Luckily, they seemed not to care for one another’s presence or their surroundings overmuch unless directly roused. While she could have cleared them out all at once, it would have taken significantly more qi than the slower, stealthier method, and she wanted to conserve her energy for Zeqing’s lessons.

To be honest, she wasn’t sure what the spirits could actually do. For all she knew, if she whipped them up all at once, they would fuse into some kind of giant angst titan. Best to avoid something like that. So over the course of the next few hours, she cleared away the clinging spirits. It was obnoxious work as they seemed to spawn back in behind her as she went along, but it was rewarding in its own way.

Every time she dispersed a wailing specter, she got a tiny snippet of memory: the feeling of holding a sword, the sight of a spear’s point whistling by her ear, the rocking gait of a horse beneath her, and so many more. They were disjointed things without context, but she could feel them drifting around in the back of her thoughts. If she cultivated after this. she might see some small improvements in her skills.

Eventually, she figured out that if she cleared a small section then started up the cleansing talismans, it would prevent further wraiths from spawning in that area. That would have been nice to know earlier, but she had gotten used to the Sect’s sink or swim methods by this point.

Within another hour, she had the place clean and cleansed, ready for a whole new batch of washouts and their assorted angst.

Ling Qi might not fully understand the games of status that seemingly every noble played, but she knew that losing would be a chain, limiting her ability to grow.

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