The last notes of Ling Qi’s latest attempt at composition drifted away on the wind, sending their faint ripples through the flow of the world’s qi. Yet for all their technical perfection, Ling Qi remained unsatisfied with the work. The melody she was trying to compose still rang hollow in both her ears and her more spiritual senses.
“Looks like you still can’t quite manage upbeat, huh?” Sixiang said from where they lounged, resting against the spindly trunk of one of the scraggly trees that clung to the cliff face that overlooked the lower reaches of the mountain. “You’re such a gloomy girl,” they teased. The androgynous spirit wore a robe of pale rose pink today which hung open across the chest, leaving their current gender rather obvious.
“I am not gloomy,” Ling Qi shot back irritably. “Be serious. What is it I am lacking here? I wanted to compose something cheerful for Mother. Spring and summer motifs should be perfect for that, shouldn’t they?” While she hadn’t much free time this week, what she did have had been spent stopping in to at least greet Mother each day.
“Well,” Sixiang drawled, idly kicking their legs, unmindful of the scattering of stones sent tumbling down the crumbling cliffside. “Limiting yourself to mortal comprehension is quite a handicap, but I don’t really think that’s your problem. You’re not so far from the mortal world as all that.”
“Then what is?” Ling Qi asked, frustrated. “I’ve tried so many different forms and arrangements, but none of them seem right.”
“Like I said, you’re just a gloomy girl,” Sixiang replied matter-of-factly. “Of course you can’t give life to that kind of melody, thinking like you do.” They waved their hand flippantly. “Don’t get me wrong. You can arrange a few cheerful phrases, but that’s hardly the sort of optimism that you’re trying to convey, right?”
She gave the spirit a dirty look. “You’re really good at not answering questions properly, you know?”
Sixiang stuck out their tongue childishly. “If I was direct, I’d be one of those hard-nosed, pushy sun spirits.”
Ling Qi let out an annoyed huff but closed her eyes, surrendering the point. She meditated on her failures and Sixiang’s words. “... I just don’t think that way, do I?”.
“Yep,” Sixiang agreed. “You don’t have that kind of expectation that things will go well, so you can’t put it into song.”
Ling Qi grimaced. Sixiang’s assessment was true. Though things had been going well, better than she could have realistically hoped at the start of the year, some part of her was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the things she had built to come crashing down around her ears. For all that had happened in the last year and for all that she had changed… some mentalities were simply slow to fade.
“A different theme would probably work better for now,” Sixiang offered cheerfully, breaking Ling Qi out of her thoughts. “Changing yourself is slow going for a human, or so I’ve heard,” they said with an air of received wisdom.
“I suppose so,” Ling Qi said. “I’m still not gloomy,” she added, shooting a scowl at the relaxing spirit as she raised her flute to begin another attempt.
“Then why do you always dress like you’re headed to a funeral?” Sixiang teased. “You’re just missing the mourning veil.”
Ling Qi huffed and didn’t respond. So what if she wore somewhat somber colors? That didn’t make her gloomy. Besides, there was no point in wearing anything else given the quality of her Cai gown.
... She resolved not to express that to Xiulan lest the other girl drag her out for emergency shopping. Then again, that too was something that had faded; it was difficult to match the almost fanatically driven Xiulan of today to the one who would spend time frivolously poking around a tailor’s shop at the beginning of the year.
Ling Qi grimaced and dismissed the thought. They could all take a breath when the tournament was over. There were only two months left.
“See, I can practically see the cloud over your head,” Sixiang said lightly, drawing a snort from Ling Qi.
“Fine. Why don’t you show me how it’s done then?” Ling Qi shot back. “Since I apparently can’t manage.”
“Hmm… I suppose I can play a piece or two,” they mused, “if only to lighten the atmosphere a little.”
Ling Qi closed her own eyes as a set of reed pipes coalesced from shimmering mist in the spirit’s hands. Relaxing herself, she focused on the faster tempo of the song flowing from Sixiang’s pipes.
There was definitely something in the spirit’s notes that she lacked, but she knew that it wouldn’t be so simple as copying phrases and notes. For all that she was composing for her Mother, she couldn’t be satisfied by a piece that was only competent on a mortal level.
As much as she found herself enjoying trading melodies with the spirit, Ling Qi took her leave after some time with the promise to meet the spirit the next day and continue their exchange. Descending the mountain, Ling Qi then made her way toward Xiulan’s increasingly charred training grounds.
Xiulan’s mastery of her arts was growing pretty swiftly, she found. Even the girl’s lightest attacks burned blue with heat, and her stronger ones could be compared to Lady Cai’s light arts in appearance, if not in effect. Xiulan’s cultivation was doing well as well; Ling Qi noted that Xiulan had cultivated back to the peak of the second realm and her aura had the faint cracks of a breakthrough beginning to spread through it.
She spent the rest of the afternoon with her friend, and although she left feeling sweaty and overheated, she didn’t regret it. Xiulan mentioned that she would be busy with closed door cultivation in the immediate future though, so she would have to find a different training partner in the following week.
Over the course of the next few days, Ling Qi spent her time cultivating and performing Sect Missions to earn points for future tutoring. Most were trivial, although she did have a slightly more memorable time performing an exorcism of a haunted house. Still, all in all the time leading up to her next lesson with Zeqing was peaceful. Over the course of the week, she had felt that she was making good progress in further mastering the Serenade and improving her singing ability.
When she arrived at the black pool though, she found only Hanyi waiting. The little spirit was perched on the stone bench where she usually sat with Zeqing, kicking her bare feet idly when she arrived.
“Hiya, Big Sister,” the little spirit said cheerfully. She held a little snow mouse in one hand, caught by the tail. The beast squeaked and kicked as Hanyi poked at it, trying to escape the snow girl’s grasp. “Momma is gonna be a little late today. Auntie Xin came to talk about grown-up stuff.”
“That’s fine,” Ling Qi replied, glancing at the little girl’s prize, a weak first grade beast, as she seated herself on the bench beside her, the snow crunching faintly under her weight. “Hanyi, why are you… playing with that?”
The blue-skinned little girl blinked, looking up from the distressed animal trapped between her fingers. “Oh! I was being a good girl and practicing like Momma said,” she answered with a grin that cried out for praise as only a child’s could. “I caught the mousey ‘cause he couldn’t resist my voice!” She puffed her chest out proudly.
Ling Qi calmly patted the little spirit on her head. “Good job. You shouldn’t play around with it like that though,” she said, not wanting to make Hanyi get into a huff.
“Big Sister acts too much like Momma,” Hanyi complained. “But fine. I won’t play with my food anymore.” Ling Qi blinked, nonplussed. She had never seen either the mother or daughter spirits eat anything.
The mouse let out a strangled squeak and twitched violently then, frost spreading across its fur and skin as it visibly withered and blackened in the little spirit’s grasp like a corpse left to freeze on a mountaintop. Hanyi let out a delighted sound, and Ling Qi caught the slight shimmer in the air as she breathed in the stream of heat that arose from the beast’s remains.
“Hehe, don’t tell Momma I was snacking before dinner, okay, Big Sister?” Hanyi asked, looking up at her as she tossed the remains aside carelessly. The carcass landed in a heap of snow with a soft sound, disappearing from sight.
“... Sure,” Ling Qi said. She supposed it wasn’t the weirdest thing she had ever seen. “Have you been getting along with Zhengui?” she asked, deliberately changing the subject.
Hanyi pouted, crossing her arms. “He’s being a big jerk,” she huffed. “He keeps saying he’s too busy to play ‘cause he has to beat up some eel. I don’t get it. I’m way more fun to play with than some doofy eel.”
Ah. It looked like Zhengui might have taken to training with Heizui a little too well. “I’ll have a chat with him,” Ling Qi said, “about not neglecting his friends.”
“He’s a dummy,” Hanyi corrected, eyeing her suspiciously. “I just want my sled back. It’s not ‘cause I miss him or something.”
“Of course,” Ling Qi replied, hiding her grin with her sleeve. That was kind of cute. It did remind her that she would be leaving the mountain in a year or so. What would happen then?
Thankfully, Zeqing arrived before Hanyi could pick up on the drop in her mood. Ling Qi allowed herself to forget the future for the moment and immerse herself in her lessons.
Later, as they finished up and the sun sank below the horizon, casting the ravine into darkness, she found herself reminded.
Zeqing sat beside Ling Qi, and Hanyi lay with her head in her Mother’s lap, tired out from several hours of hard practice. Asleep, the little spirit shimmered in and out of solidity, blue flesh fading to reveal swirling snow before fading back in again. The elder spirit rested a hand of transparent ice on her daughter’s head as the two of them watched the last light fade from the sky.
“I have heard that you will be leaving the Sect,” her teacher said quietly without any accusation in her tone.
“I will,” Ling Qi replied. “I am incredibly thankful to you and the Sect, but I want to make something that is mine.”
“I understand,” Zeqing said, and Ling Qi felt a rush of relief. “Still, it will be less interesting without you. You have been a good student.”
“I will still be here a year yet,” Ling Qi said before her features fell in a frown. “... Assuming an Inner Sect student can visit this peak.”
“It should not be difficult to obtain dispensation, so long as you do not interfere with the operation of the Outer Sect,” Zeqing said without worry. “I suppose a year still seems like a great length of time to you.”
“It does,” Ling Qi admitted. “I have been happy here for the most part. I think I want that year to seem long.”
Zeqing let out an amused laugh like the tinkling of crystal chimes on the wind. “What an honest answer.”
“I try,” Ling Qi grinned. “Sometimes, anyway.”
The spirit gave a shallow nod in reply, brushing her fingers through Hanyi’s hair. “Let me ask you then: what do you think of my daughter?”
Ling Qi blinked, glancing sidelong at her musical mentor. “She can be… difficult and maybe a little spoiled,” Ling Qi answered, thinking back to the girl’s cries of unfairness at the end of their game of tag. “... but I think she is a bit lonely too.”
Zeqing did not reply for a time, and her billowing hair blocked her features from sight as she lowered her head. Ling Qi remained silent until she spoke again. “So you see it as well,” Zeqing remarked. “Hanyi has shown much more cheer since that spirit of yours began coming here.”
“I hope Zhengui has behaved himself,” Ling Qi said, aware of how territorial the snow spirit could be.
Zeqing flicked her sleeve in dismissal of the words. “Once, I might have scoured the mountain clean to remove the presence of a beast like him, but it no longer bothers me,” she said. “But I cannot say that seeing my daughter so joyful in the presence of another does not… vex me in some ways,” she added, her voice growing dark.
Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably as the temperature dropped. “... Will it be a problem?”
“I will not let it be,” Zeqing answered, her blood red lips curving down in a frown. “I am not as I was. The same instinct which demands that her joy be in me alone are the ones which would cause me to devour her as well. Humanity is a vexing thing, bringing such uncertainty.”
“I don’t think you regret it though, do you?” Ling Qi asked carefully.
“I do not,” Zeqing replied. “Yet I know that one day, I will need to let her go.” Ling Qi flinched at the icy wind that cut through her defenses, chilling her to the bone the moment those words left the spirit’s mouth. “That is the human thing to do, is it not?”
Ling Qi shivered as the snow and ice slashed through the air around her, leaving only the mother and daughter spirits untouched. “... Maybe,” she admitted. “Do you think that would help her?”
“Hanyi will not ever be more than she is if she remains,” Zeqing said, her soft voice audible over the shrieking wind. “And that no longer seems as acceptable as it once was. Did you know that before I began teaching you, the thought of teaching my daughter never crossed my mind as more than an idle fancy?”
The wind was quieting down, thankfully, and the snowfall was growing slower and gentler. “You seem very proud of her progress though,” Ling Qi said, looking over at them.
“I am,” Zeqing agreed. “And such is my conflict. I wish to see my daughter mature, but she cannot do so with me.” The spirit sounded as if those words physically pained her, and perhaps they did. “Do you understand my meaning, Disciple Ling Qi?”
Ling Qi nodded. “I will be happy to continue my lessons, Teacher Zeqing, alone and alongside your daughter. As your student, I am her older sister. I will look after my junior if need be,” she promised.
Zeqing nodded shallowly as the last of the whipping wind faded. “I speak only as a consideration for the future,” she said, somewhat stiffly. “A year remains to us after all, and the future may bring change.”