She left soon after, collecting the cleansing talismans to return to the Sect official, who had retired to an office on the second floor to do paperwork. She collected the token that would signal the job was complete and headed back to the mountain at a light run, dipping into flight only when the road grew twisty. It was amazing how fast the world blurred by when she put on speed.
Ling Qi made it up to the black pool well before twilight.
It wasn’t long after she arrived, stepping lightly atop the dusting of snow on the rocks, that Zeqing emerged from the eternal snowstorm outside the ravine, Hanyi held in the crook of her arm. The younger ice spirit clung tightly to her mother’s gown as they descended but was grinning all the same.
“Flying is the best!” Hanyi said brightly as Zeqing descended into the ravine, hopping down from her perch to drop the last ten odd meters on her own. The little spirit girl’s bare feet hit the ground with a solid thump.
“It is,” Ling Qi agreed, rising from her seat on the stone ‘bench’ to bow to her teacher in greeting. “My apologies for failing to make it last week.”
Zeqing’s blank white eyes studied her as the older spirit descended to hover above the ground. “It seems you have made good use of your time away, so no apologies are necessary,” she said calmly. “Congratulations on completing your journey to the third realm.”
“Thank you for your praise,” Ling Qi replied, offering another polite bow. “Do you think we might be able to begin studying the Forgotten Vale Melody again?”
Zeqing nodded, glancing over to Hanyi, who had wandered over to the mirror-like surface of the black pool to crouch at its edge. Ling QI blinked as the younger ice spirit poked at the black ice with her finger, and it rippled like unfrozen water.
“Hanyi,” Zeqing called, bringing the girl’s attention back to her, “You may play in the pool for one half hour while I give Ling Qi her lesson. Do not go too deep.”
Hanyi’s face brightened, and she clapped her hands excitedly. “Thank you, Mama! I’ll be careful. I promise!” Ling Qi could only stare as the other spirit leapt into the frozen pool with only a silent ripple to mark her passing.
“... How does that work?” she asked after a brief moment of contemplation.
“Ice does not bar our passage any more than water bars yours,” Zeqing explained simply. “The pool is safe enough for spirits like Hanyi and I, who match its nature,” she continued as she floated closer and seated herself lightly on the bench, her sleeves billowing as ice began to crystallize within them, forming her transparent hands. “Seat yourself.”
Ling Qi did so and drew out her flute as she settled in next to her teacher, the absolute chill that the spirit radiated no longer even uncomfortable. “So, can you explain why waiting to cultivate this has helped me?”
“Yes,” Zeqing said, a flute forming between her crystalline fingers. “Now that your domain can grow, untethered by your mortal body, you may learn to impress your arts upon it and take aspects of them into yourself. Through this method, you will be able to refine and develop your domain further than you would by simply cultivating its baseline.”
Ling Qi frowned, tracing her fingers over the designs on her own flute. “How will that affect me though? Forgotten Vale Melody is…” It was a very useful art, but it wasn’t exactly a happy one.
“Your domain is you. It is an expression of who you are. Though you might find yourself changing as you grow, you remain yourself. Art aspects taken in will be shaped by what is already there to reflect the individual that you are,” Zeqing explained calmly. “Now, allow me to explain how you might cultivate your domain in tune with your melodies…”
Zeqing’s careful instruction allowed Ling Qi to quickly master the first parts of Forgotten Vale Melody’s more advanced techniques, refining her ability to call up the mists and shroud the ravine in solitude. If she could keep going at this rate, she might be able to complete the sixth measure of the Melody by the end of the month.
Hanyi joined them for the lessons partway through, hopping onto the bench to sit between Ling Qi and her Mother. Ling Qi continued her own cultivation while keeping half an ear out for Zeqing’s soft instruction to her daughter. Hanyi was about as wiggly and hard to keep focused as any girl her apparent age, but Zeqing made good use of Ling Qi as an example. Ling Qi made sure to follow her lead, playing up how easy her achievements with the musical arts were and how simple it was. Zeqing made sure to slip in low-key but constant praise for Ling Qi’s efforts.
The end result was a jealous snow girl diligently practicing her cultivation under her mother’s guiding gaze, working hard to earn some praise herself. It seemed children were simple, even when they were spirits.
Eventually, night fell and Ling Qi descended the mountain to join her Sect tutor in another round of exhaustive meditation and dancing through endless streams of knives as she worked to master the steps of the lunar revelry.
In the wake of her training, Ling Qi elected to take her first nap in two weeks, sleeping away a few quiet hours before dawn. Once she awoke, she headed to the garden to gather up Zhengui, who had spent the last day or so napping as his cultivation grew. She knew from her reading that serpent-tortoises were prone to lengthy sleeps, so Zhengui’s tendency toward naps didn’t worry her. She would have to see if there was a way to give him a bit more energy in the future though.
Once Zhengui had been roused from the flower garden, they headed down the mountain to meet Gu Tai at the edge of the village.
When she arrived, she found the young man seated cross-legged atop the stone totem that marked the boundary of safety around the village. This time, he was not alone. Perched on his shoulder was a large raven with bright red eyes and streaks of lighter gray among its inky black feathers. Thin curls of smoke rose from its body, wafting lazily into the air above their heads.
“A good morning to you, Miss Ling,” Gu Tai said in greeting, hopping down from the totem as she approached. His companion fluttered its - no, her, by the feel of the raven’s qi - wings but otherwise remained unperturbed by the motion.
“Good morning,” Ling Qi replied with a polite dip of her head. “Thank you for agreeing to help me with this.”
“It is no trouble,” he said dismissively before gesturing to the raven on his shoulder examining her critically. “This is Yuzhao, my friend and companion. She will be helping us today.”
“Charmed.” The raven’s beak clacked as a dry feminine voice emerged from it.
“Ah, likewise?” Ling Qi responded tentatively as the bird turned to preen her feathers. “I’ll introduce you to the one we’ll be training today,” she continued, recovering. She sent a silent nudge to Zhengui, and he emerged from her dantian, materializing a step behind her. “This is Zhengui,” she said brightly, gesturing to her spirit. Gui examined Gu Tai and Yuzhao guilelessly, blinking his bright green eyes, but she noticed that Zhen regarded Gu Tai with ill-concealed suspicion as he peered over her shoulder. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to have a word with him as she had to with Xuan Shi.
“... The naming sense matches, if nothing else,” Yuzhao, the raven, said dryly, not looking up from her wing.
“Hush, you,” Gu Tai chided, lowering himself to a crouch to more easily meet Gui’s gaze. “Hello there, young one. Are you ready to learn a few little tricks?”
“What kind of tricks?”’ Zhen asked, slipping forward, his warm body resting on her shoulder. His suspicion colored his voice, but he sounded interested.
“Gui wants to learn because Big Sister will be happy if Gui is strong,” his other half said, scuffing at the ground with his blunt claws.
“What a dedicated spirit you have,” Gu Tai mused, glancing up at the serpent peeking over her shoulder. “Unlike some.”
“I am as dedicated as you deserve,” the bird on his shoulder retorted. “Are we going to begin?”
“Once we get ourselves off the road,” Gu Tai replied dryly before addressing Ling Qi once again. “I doubt it is in Miss Ling’s interests to break up the eastern road.”
“Probably not,” she said with a shrug. “If you’ll follow me, there’s a good clearing nearby.” This was fine. No mentions of marriage or the future, just a little training between friendly acquaintances.
Xiulan’s cousin did, as it turned out, have a fair amount of advice to offer - or rather, his spirit did. Yuzhao was a creature of Sun and Death unique to the eastern deserts and descended from the now extinct phoenixes that once resided there or so she had bragged. The point was that she had a fair amount of insight to offer Zhengui on mixing his two conflicting natures of growth and destruction.
Gu Tai was more helpful to Zhen given his experience with fire arts, and she was glad to see Zhen’s aim and control of his venom improving significantly with some suggestions. Ling Qi was not certain about how she felt about the power Zhengui unlocked with Yuzhao’s help though. Zhengui was now able to expend all his remaining qi into a raging inferno within a short distance of himself. It wouldn’t harm Ling Qi, but in the aftermath of this Rebirth Inferno, Zhengui would fall unconscious, albeit with restored and even more durable armor. She hoped Zhengui was never in a position to need to use it in combat, but Ling Qi was practical enough to be glad he had it as a final resort should he need it.
Several hours of hard training was enough to leave Zhengui exhausted and asleep in her dantian.
As they left the now much more heavily scorched clearing, Ling Qi walked beside a relaxed Gu Tai in companionable silence. She stole a glance at him as they walked. Ling Qi was now certain that Gu Tai was of good character, but that really wasn’t enough of a basis to decide to become husband and wife.
Ling Qi’s thoughts drifted toward the research she had done on dragons recently. That vale, where the mystic fruit she had stolen grew, was a very potent site. For a spirit beast like Zhengui, aligned so strongly with wood qi, it was even more so. To help her little brother grow, she was willing to scheme her way to access.
Dragon came in three broad types. The first were the heavenly or sky dragons, kin to the Sage Emperor’s spirit. They were the only dragons which flew with an instinctive command of wind and cloud, able to whip up storms at a moment’s notice. Their scales were typically light blue, gold, or white, and they had the longest and most serpentine forms. Living among the clouds, they touched the earth only to nest on the very highest mountain peaks.
The second type were underworld dragons, which, unsurprisingly, lived underground, burrowing freely under the feet of the Empire. They had deep black or brown scales as well as a broader, more lizard-like shape but lacked the horns that other types of dragons had. Their passage revitalized the earth they passed through, and they had a deep love for certain liquors. That love made them especially common, insofar as dragons were common anywhere, in the Ebon Rivers province, a province famed for its own love of drinking and a rich liquor tradition.
Most relevant to her interests were river or flood dragons, the category to which the one in the valley most likely belonged to. This type was the most social of the dragons, and many of the Empire’s larger cities had a festival set aside for celebrating and propiating the local river dragon.
“Would you mind if I asked you for another piece of advice?” Ling Qi asked, breaking the silence between them.
“Go ahead,” Gu Tai replied, casting a look her way as they walked, retreading their path to the forest’s edge. “Something unrelated to your spirit?”
“Mostly,” Ling Qi admitted, glancing up as the shadow of his own spirit passed over them. “It’s - Well, to put it bluntly, how would you go about negotiating with a dragon?”
Dragons, especially the younger ones, were also incredibly territorial and prideful. The young dragon was probably still infuriated by the theft of the fruit and would likely be in no mood for negotiations. It will be difficult to even get it to listen to her.
But not impossible. Unlike the heavenly dragons, whose aloofness made them nigh unapproachable, the pride of river dragons was rather more vain. This was the reason for the elaborate and expensive festivals that cities near older members of their race threw.
River dragons coveted various expensive foodstuffs, certain types of qi-touched jade, and other baubles which she probably could acquire at some expense to hopefully bribe the dragon into compliance.
She hoped it was a male dragon though. When she had researched, she had found that female dragons despised human women due to a long history in the pre-Imperial period of… Apparently, sayings about citizens of the Empire having “the blood of dragons” were not entirely folklore.
To his credit, the question didn’t give him pause. “What manner of dragon are we speaking of?”
“A young river dragon,” Ling Qi answered. “He lives in a site I want to cultivate in. I was hoping to gain access peacefully.”
“River dragons are not common in the east,” Gu Tai mused, “but the principles remain the same. You’ve researched the basics?”
“Yes,” Ling Qi agreed. “I’m going to gather gifts before I go. I was thinking I might offer a song or two as well.”
“Not a bad idea, but you will want to be careful.” Gu Tai teased, “There are plenty of tales about lovely musicians disappearing from riverbanks! That would be very unfortunate for our continued acquaintanceship.”
Ling Qi was more worried about the younger dragon's mother in that regard, but to be fair, Gu Tai wouldn’t know of that. “Be serious, Gu Tai.”
“Of course, my apologies,” he said with a shake of his head, a light leap carrying him over a fallen log in their path. “Gifts with value beyond the material will sweeten the pot well, but I think there is a matter you should keep in mind.”
“What would that be?” Ling Qi asked, following him over the obstruction, the wind sending her gown fluttering as she drifted lightly back to the ground on the other side.
“Dragons are prideful beasts,” he said, only to grin at the flat look she shot him. “It sounds obvious, I know, but it is difficult to truly understand their demeanor merely from that statement. You have, if you might forgive me for saying so, a rather blunt demeanor.”
“That’s fair,” Ling Qi agreed. “I know how to be polite when needed though.” Mostly.
“I’m sure,” Gu Tai said, and she narrowed her eyes slightly as she detected a trace of humor in his tone. “You… have a certain pride though, which shows through, and to a dragon, that will be a challenge.”
She wasn’t sure if she should be flattered by that kind of statement or not. “So what do I do?”
“Simply understand that to a dragon, there is no such thing as an equal. All things either stand above it or beneath it,” he explained. “In older dragons, who spend much time with humans, this might be curbed, but with a young dragon, you must either behave with utter subservience or be completely domineering. Anything else will confuse and irritate him, inciting a challenge to determine your relative positions.” Gu Tai sounded rather sure of his words; it did sound like he was speaking from experience rather than reciting from a book.
“Sounds like a real pain,” Ling Qi commented. She would have to watch her every word when dealing with the dragon from a subservient position, but she wasn’t sure if she could successfully dominate the dragon, especially if she couldn’t harm him lest his mother take offense. “What would you do?”
“I am not a man who finds subordinating myself easy,” he said after consideration. “I might do so in the face of overwhelming power perhaps, but as a Gu, I do have my pride, foolish as it may be.”
“Wouldn’t doing that incite resentment from the dragon?” Ling Qi asked.
“Not as much as you might think.” Gu Tai shrugged. “They are not human and do not think as we do. A dragon so defeated might seek to challenge you again when it attains greater strength, but it will not resent the defeat as a human would.”
“And if I am not allowed to hurt the dragon in question?” she asked as they left the shadow of the trees and found themselves back on the road.
“... Tricky,” he mused , giving her an assessing look. “But possible. Do you imagine yourself able to exhaust an angry dragon without fighting back?”
Ling Qi grimaced. She was pretty difficult to pin down, but she couldn’t say with confidence that she could, especially when she wasn’t sure of the dragon’s exact strength. It would probably be easier to just take a subordinate position and simply watch her words and demeanor very carefully, but Gu Tai’s words spoke to her.
She didn’t want to. She had gained pride and self-confidence in herself over the course of her months at the Sect, and she would be fighting other third realms at the New Year’s Tournament. A fight with a dragon would be a relatively low stakes fight in which she could test her capabilities, especially because it sounded like such fights to determine hierarchy was normal to dragons so she could fall back on her original plan if she needed to. It would be a difficult fight, but…
“I can do it,” she told Gu Tai firmly.
Gu Tai assessed her confidence then smiled. “When do you plan to take on the dragon?”
Ling Qi considered. Since she wouldn’t be able to use Frozen Soul Serenade, as it would do damage to the dragon, she would need to rely on her defensive suite, Sable Crescent Step and Thousand Ring Fortress arts, to play keep away while Forgotten Vale Melody drained the dragon. Ling Qi could use every advantage she could get, however small, and Sable Crescent Step performed best at night.
“Tonight,” she answered.
“Drop by before you go to take on the dragon. I’ll have something for you.”