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With everything else Ling Qi had done this week, taking the morning off to cultivate with Xiulan in the White Room after picking up her mission reward was a nice little break. In her fuzzy memories of rainbow silk and warm waters, she could recall the sheer ease with which the impurities that blocked the meridian she was clearing flowing away like mist under the morning sun. Soon, she would be able to practice Zeqing’s art, Frozen Soul Serenade, without having to change the elemental attunement of her meridians.

It was also nice to see some of the stress lines she had begun to notice forming at the corners of Xiulan’s eyes smoothed away for the moment. In the wake of their cultivation time ending, the two of them had gone back to one of the upscale teahouses in the center of town to relax and let the fuzziness in their heads fade.

“What a wondrous place,” Xiulan mused, leaning back against the padded bench. “I do not believe I have ever opened two meridians with a single effort before.” Ling Qi could see the girl smiling behind her thread of gold veil.

“It is pretty amazing,” Ling Qi agreed, sipping a bit of the warm tea from her cup. It was a mild flavor, and she savored her current ignorance of what that might mean. With Cai Renxiang’s fervor for tea, Ling Qi suspected that she would be learning more than she had ever wanted to know about tea in the days going forward. “I had thought I was nearing my limit before Lady Cai opened the White Room for our use.”

“And yet you likely had more open then than I do now,” Xiulan shot back, only a touch of bitterness in her voice.

“I’m a little surprised that you haven’t refused me yet,” Ling Qi responded.

Xiulan was silent, and Ling Qi didn’t miss the conflict in her eyes. “I cannot afford pride of that sort if I am to make it to Inner Sect this time. You are my friend; I will simply have to accept your generosity in this. Do not think that I will not repay you in the future.”

Ling Qi nodded, accepting the words with the seriousness that they were due before cracking a smile. “Well, for starters, do you know a good site for cultivating fire arts? Zhen can’t get much use out of the place where I am training his brother at the moment.”

Xiulan raised an eyebrow, looking surprised. “Not what I meant, but I am surprised you did not ask sooner. I cannot share my sister’s site, but I will make a list for you.”

“Hah! You know how I am sometimes,” Ling Qi replied with a self-deprecating smile.

Xiulan rolled her eyes. “Sometimes I worry for you. If I go away for a time, I expect I’ll return to find you mossed over in a cave somewhere.”

Ling Qi’s smile was melancholic. In the future, it wasn’t likely that she would be seeing Xiulan very often, but no matter which path she had chosen, she would be leaving something or someone behind. “You’ll have to stay in contact then when you leave the Sect and make sure I don’t forget anything important.”

“Hmph. You’ll not need me for that,” Xiulan snorted. “You will have a fief to oversee after all. You strike me as the responsible sort.”

Ling Qi nodded. By now, her status as Cai Renxiang’s retainer had begun to spread, and Gu Xiulan would not have missed the news with her connections. “I’m sorry, but…”

“Do not be. Such an offer is not one the Gu clan can compete with,” Xiulan replied. “Still, I will keep in touch as I am able. I will remain in the Sect, and thus, the province, for some time, regardless of what happens at the tournament.”

“I appreciate it,” Ling Qi said quietly before sighing, breaking the somber mood. She would have to at least meet Gu Tai at some point to politely and formally turn down the offer, but for now, she didn’t want to think about such things. “So, what other Inner Sect gossip has your sister been telling you? Even if I won’t be there long, I’d like to know what I am getting into…”

Ling Qi was glad for the pleasant hour or so of conversation that followed, even if much of it was just laughing over the personal foibles of individual Inner Sect disciples. She did learn some interesting things though.

The Inner Sect ranked its disciples. The top disciple, currently Gu Yanmei, was ranked number one, and the ranks proceeded down to whatever number matched the current amount of disciples, typically around one thousand. But the ranks weren’t as simple as a measure of power. Challenges were usually allowed within each half of the ranks, but to enter the top five hundred, a disciple had to have contributed to the Sect in significant ways to be allowed to challenge for position. Another ledge stood at the top one hundred and the top ten, Only those who had served in the Sect military in some capacity for an extended period could enter those ranks. Higher ranks, of course, came with greater resources and access to Sect materials.

She also learned far too much about the romantic inclinations of her Senior Brothers and Sisters. It seemed that Gu Yanmei was an inveterate hoarder of gossip despite the personality that Ling Qi had previously observed.

***

Once she parted ways with Xiulan, Ling Qi began her preparations for her expedition out to the cave that Hidden Moon had shown her. She picked up Zhengui from the garden and ensured that all of her pills and salves were stored away in her storage ring.

Not wanting to burn too much qi, she made the journey on foot, reaching the mountain where her target was only a bit over two hours later. She was immediately struck by the sense of foreboding which shrouded that short, stumpy mountain peak and the impenetrability of the shadows that clung like thick webs to the branches beneath the canopy of the trees.

Ling Qi advanced carefully under those shadows, suffused with the tranquility of her Argent Mirror art. Misleading illusions parted before her like cobwebs before a brush, and hissing, shadowy things fled her presence, only visible as wriggling shapes in the corner of her eye.

Yet her passage was far from unbarred .The air was still heavy with foreboding and the deep earthy scents of fungus and rot. Pale lichen grew on trees and rocks, and thick mushroom groves littered the loamy ground. After the first one released a cloud of qi-infused spores at her approach, Ling Qi took to avoiding them if she could.

Shadowy shapes, like the ghosts of dead trees, reached from the darkness to catch at her gown and hair, only to be sundered by the flash of her flying sword. Slithering masses of insects with a deer’s skull worn like a macabre helmet spat sickly qi at her from afar, their writhing forms bearing the vague shape of men, and hungry white worms, similar to those used by Yan Renshu, emerged from the dirt to snap and spit.

Her flute called up a veil of mist that shrouded her movements and tore to shreds the things that approached her, but she kept it close, not wanting to rile up the whole forest. The swarm spirits shrieked as the qi-infused steel of her Neophyte’s Blade carved them to pieces, and Zhengui’s fiery venom cooked them until they popped and burst, sundering their “heads” and leaving the masses of vermin to disperse in her wake as she continued through the haunted forest.

Despite her sharp senses, Ling Qi found it difficult to maintain her path. She knew where the cave should be from her map, but she found herself being turned around again and again, not by illusion but as if the space she was in folded strangely upon itself such that passing through an arch of branches might leave her walking in the opposite direction a hundred meters away.

There was something broken here, Ling Qi could feel. It wasn’t like the ruin left by the shaman’s destruction, a sickness or wound in the process of healing. The atmosphere of this place instead brought to mind a twisted, crippled limb, damaged fundamentally, never to fully heal. It made her skin crawl.

Constantly keeping her technique active to penetrate the veils of this place slowly began to wear on her. There was a subtle drag at her qi as well, and she found her ability to recover qi in mid-combat weakened as if the earth was drinking in the residual qi that she would usually have used to recover.

By the time she reached the yawning mouth of the cave in a lifeless clearing stripped of all but a few scattered bones, human and otherwise, more than eight hours had passed. She had come to the mountain in the afternoon, and now it was night. Zhengui drooped tiredly beside her, and her own qi was low as well. She could recover with a pill or two, but her intuition told her that the path ahead would be more draining still. She had no doubt that the heavy fog that shrouded this part of the mountain would be no easier to navigate by air either.

She didn’t want to be stuck in some dank mountain cave when her mother arrived. She had figured out the path, and as twisty as it was, it hadn’t actually changed. Space was weird and broken here, but the destinations when blinking from one place to the next were consistent. Now that she had figured out the path to the cave, it would take much less time to arrive back at the cave.

She would just have to return and finish this another day.

***

“So that’s how it is then?” Gu Tai said, disappointed.

At Ling Qi’s request, they had met in a private room at the same establishment where they had last met for lunch. She hadn’t wasted any time in laying out the situation, not wanting to lead Xiulan’s cousin on now that her decision had been made.

“It is,” Ling Qi said, raising her head as she straightened up from her polite bow. “I am sorry to have wasted your time.”

“Do not concern yourself over that,” Gu Tai dismissed. “It is not as if I had no other reasons for being here. And I can hardly blame you for your choice.”

“So everyone says,” Ling Qi said wryly. Most everyone who knew of her new position seemed to think she had made the obvious and self-evident choice. “Still, for what it is worth, thank you for your help with the river dragon, for taking the time to help me with Zhengui, and for your advice. I… find that I didn’t dislike the idea of taking your offer the way I did when we first met.”

“That honesty,” the older boy chuckled. “Let me reply in turn. I am truly disappointed even though we have only known one another briefly. I found you to have a certain charm that I am unlikely to find elsewhere, but such is life. One cannot grasp all the treasures before their eyes.”

Ling Qi found her cheeks heating slightly, and she looked away from his earnest expression. “You are not what I expected when Xiulan began talking about this sort of thing,” Ling Qi grumbled, crossing her arms. “It was supposed to be easy to dismiss you.”

Gu Tai laughed. “I shall accept your compliment, Miss Ling. I would keep that caution though. You will see far more suitors than I in the coming years, and though it pains me to say it, the average young master is a cut below in charm and chivalry.” His grin made it clear that he was jesting.

So Ling Qi simply snorted, rolling her eyes. “I am glad to see your pride has not been wounded too terribly by rejection,” she said dryly.

He sketched a slightly facetious bow, his smile still in place. “We Gu are a resilient lot, you will find. Our pride is not so easily extinguished.” His expression became more serious as he straightened up. “I do hope that you can see it in your heart to remain in communication with my dear cousin though. I fear that her drive might become consuming. It is a flaw of ours.”

Her own smile wilted at the reminder. “I will not leave my friends behind,” she said determinedly. “If my cultivation cannot even allow me to keep in contact with a friend a few leagues away, then what good is it?” She wasn’t a helpless mortal, trapped by the confines of the totems keeping the spirits at bay.

“A good answer,” Gu Tai commented, a smile tugging at his lips once again. “It is too easy to forget under the mountain of responsibility and duty that cultivation is ultimately an exaltation of self. I do believe I will hear your name again in the future.”

“I will choose to hear that as a compliment,” Ling Qi replied. He wasn’t wrong, she thought, but it wasn’t so simple either. One’s self did not have to exclude ties to other people. Doing so was a lonely and empty path, bereft of any real happiness.

“I did mean it as one,” he replied lightly. “Goodbye, Ling Qi.”

“Goodbye, Gu Tai,” she said, matching his bow.

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