Ling Qi avoided pushing things so far again in her practice with Meizhen, if only to avoid having to repair her flying sword again. Slowly, she improved, and its motions became smoother and more natural. It still felt odd though, as if she were learning to use a forgotten limb.
According to the Inner Sect tutor she hired, a domain weapon was precisely that. One’s domain was a part of them as surely as one's hands and feet were. A domain weapon’s main use as a training tool was that it provided an obvious physical medium by which she could learn to “flex” the spiritual muscle that she was now developing.
Learning to control a weapon with her domain was only the first faltering steps of an infant. It was only in the early stages of the green realm that cultivators let their weapons simply clash against one another. As she grew, she would learn to integrate an art into the blade she wielded, allowing her to use multiple techniques simultaneously.
That was far in the future though. The Green Realm had more stages than the two preceding realms combined and all were focused on the development of the domain. The second stage of the third realm, Appraisal, would prepare her to begin constructing her domain’s foundation, and each step thereafter required further clarifying her domain through the cultivation of arts and internalization of insights until she reached the cusp of the Fourth Realm and settled on a Way. In the third realm, it would be, if not easy, at least reasonable to shift and change her domain to a fairly large degree, but once she took the next step, her domain would be final. There were only a handful of rare and difficult methods which could shift the foundation of a cultivator’s Way once it had been set.
Ling Qi threw herself further into training. Helped along by both the Silverblood pill Su Ling and Li Suyin had developed and her tutor, she mastered the exercises behind her two less used Argent arts, pushing them toward mastery and reaching the third rumble in Argent Storm and the fourth flow in Argent Current. Aside from the general improvements in the two argent art’s techniques, she mastered a new technique, Boom Leap.
Every time she mastered a new movement or a new twist of qi control, she could feel herself coming closer to a sense of completion. Her tutor revealed that the Argent arts had been created by Sect Head Yuan as a comprehensive art suite for the Sect’s armed forces. The Mirror defended against the battlefield manipulation of the Cloud Tribe shamans, the Storm empowered the soldiers, enabling them to both defend against volleys of arrows and to close distance, and the Current allowed the charge of Argent Peak’s soldiers to break enemy lines. The Sect would grant Argent Pulse to those cultivators who mastered all three Argent arts.
The Argent Pulse art was for commanders, those who stood at the head of formations and kept units working as a cohesive whole. A cultivator with the art would be able to bolster their soldiers with the stability of the earth and move them to action with the surety of heavenly might at their backs. In the wholeness of heaven and earth, a soldier could fight to their last breath without a loss of skill.
Ling Qi was sure she wouldn’t walk the path of the Argent arts. She wouldn’t be able to teach others outside the Sect Argent arts, and her combat style did not lend itself to standing on the front lines of a battle. She’d learn the argent arts she had access to if she had free time, but her focus would be on her musical and moon arts.
However, she could not afford to do nothing but cultivate. With all of the tutoring she had been purchasing, her Sect points were dwindling rapidly, and she needed to get enough points to hire next week's tutor. It would be good to get out and stretch her legs with all of the cultivating that she had been doing. That one of the quests dovetailed nicely with a conversation that she wanted to have was a happy coincidence.
“Keep up if you can,” Ling Qi laughed, leaping from branch to branch with her new technique, her companion trailing behind.
“Now you’re just showing off,” Sixiang called, their lips curled in amusement as they floated along at a more sedate pace on fluttering wings of misty light. The Moon spirit was beginning to resemble Zeqing in that their legs were long gone, and even their hands and arms were beginning to dissolve into empty mist. “This isn’t quite what I expected to be doing today, but paying some cousins a visit is fine too.”
Ling Qi let out a thoughtful hum and turned on her heel when she next landed, her next leap carrying her backward through the air. “Do you think they’re going to give us trouble?”
“If you know the right things to say, no. That is why you’re bringing me along after all, right?” Sixiang mused.
Ling Qi nodded, perched on a heavier branch before launching herself to the next, still facing backwards. “Actually, I’ve been thinking. Why are Dreaming Moon spirits so… wild? Shouldn’t a spirit of art and socializing be more… cultured, I guess?”
Sixiang buzzed around the trunk of a particularly large tree, trailing multi-hued mist from their half-corporeal limbs, a thoughtful expression on their face. “Well, I was born here, you know,” Sixiang said. “I probably have cousins like that up north, but in the great Emerald Seas, things aren’t quite so tame, you know?”
“I’ve never seen anything like your Grandmother’s party back in Tonghou,” Ling Qi contended, ducking under a branch without looking as the wind sent the hems of her gown fluttering. “And the Sect is in the Emerald Seas too.”
“Well, of course you wouldn’t have!” Sixiang laughed. “The cities and Sects, those are places for humans.”
“And the Emerald Seas isn’t?” Ling Qi asked dryly.
“It wasn’t always. Spirits remember when the Horned Lords walked ‘neath the hallowed boughs and raised their hands and cups to the Moon and Sun,” they said with a poetic lilt.
“They were human though,” Ling Qi pointed out. “They were one of the founding families of the Empire.”
“Is that how you decide what a human is?” Sixiang asked, cocking their head to the side. “Well, that’s fine too.”
“If you say it like that, I don’t feel like you agree at all,” Ling Qi said dryly. “I guess this sort of thing is what Lady Cai meant when she mentioned how troublesome the clans which kept to the Weilu ways were,” she mused.
Something flickered in Sixiang’s glittering black eyes. A hint of discomfort, perhaps? Ling Qi frowned. Now that she thought about it, Sixiang had never followed her anywhere near Cai Renxiang.
“Well, the history lesson doesn’t matter so much,” Ling Qi said, breaking the silence. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, would you like to stay awhile, even after you… fade?” Ling Qi forged on. “It’s just… I could use someone who can critique my music since I’m going to have to eventually leave the Sect behind and all.” She landed atop a thick branch, bringing her run to stop.
“I thought you might ask,” Sixiang said, bringing themself to a stop a few meters away. “It might be fun for a time.”
“You’ll be able to leave whenever you want, of course,” Ling Qi reassured the spirit. “A different perspective can be useful now and then, you know?”
“I can give that much,” Sixiang replied lightly as they drifted closer. “And things won’t be stagnant around you, or so I think.”
She studied the spirit’s oddly serious expression. “I’m not sure if I should take that as a compliment,” she said flatly.
Sixiang beamed. “You should.” They extended an arm, offering her their half-translucent hand.
Ling Qi studied Sixiang then grasped their hand. It was like holding a bundle of silk, or perhaps a cloud. Directing the qi through her hands, she found the core of energy that was “Sixiang,” and with a deep breath, she forged a connection from that core to her own dantian.
Sixiang immediately collapsed into mist, and Ling Qi shuddered as her entire body shook with a surge of near manic energy. Meanwhile, she felt her qi reserve drop sharply as the connection between her and the now formless spirit strengthened and stabilized. “Spirits, that feels weird,” she muttered, glancing at the dissipating cloud where the spirit had stood.
<Tell me about it,> Sixiang’s voice seemed to whisper in her ear. <It’s all dark, wet, and cold in here.>
Ling Qi sighed.
“So then, the goat-man-thing at the center demands a duel like I’m the one who did something wrong!” Ling Qi complained, gesturing with the translucent cup in her hands. Zeqing’s tableware was all made to order, which was definitely convenient.
<You did drop your mist across the whole party,> Sixiang noted, their whispery voice echoing in her ears.
“Half of them didn’t even have pants,” Ling Qi grumbled, disgusted. “It was indecent. They should have been thankful.” If she never saw such a disturbing sight again, she would be happy.
“How beastly,” Zeqing said without expression, hovering in a seated position across the table from her. The drink in her hands sparkled, a deeper blue than the much watered wine in Ling Qi’s own cup. The stuff was apparently made from the fruits of the tree outside Zeqing’s house by members of the Inner Sect.
“Did you beat him up then?” Hanyi asked, bouncing in her own raised seat. “Did you freeze his shorthairs off and make him cry?” The younger spirit sounded disturbingly pleased at the idea.
<You made someone cry alright,> Sixiang laughed, making Ling Qi flush.
“Well, it wasn’t that kind of duel,” Ling Qi replied, looking away and sipping from the sweet wine. It tingled pleasantly all the way down to her stomach. “He pulled out an erhu and started fiddling away, but he wasn’t exactly attacking…”
“I do hope that you crushed his pride for such a challenge,” Zeqing sniffed, partaking elegantly from her own cup. Ling Qi briefly wondered how that worked when Zeqing’s body was just an artificial construction. “My student should not lose to some Dreaming wilding.”
“I played one of the songs I’ve worked on in my free time, which they reacted really strongly to,” Ling Qi continued remembering the audience of human-ish and beastly spirits. “They must all have been really intoxicated, however that works,” she grumbled. How was she to know that her song would make a bunch of wild spirits devolve into empathetic tears? “I definitely won though. The rest of them shouted the goat-thing down when he called for a second round.”
“That’s no fun,” Hanyi pouted. “You should have frozen him a little anyway for being rude.”
“Ling Qi achieved the greater victory,” Zeqing pointed out with a touch of amusement. “What is mere physical discomfort beside humiliation.”
Ling Qi stared down into her cup; she hadn’t been going for that at all. At least the party had been willing to listen to her instructions and move away from the town and roads after that.
<It’s fine. Spirits like that don’t hold grudges. We aren’t made for it,> Sixiang reassured her. <I have to say, I understand why it’s so cold in here now though.>
“Still,” Zeqing said, breaking her from her thoughts. “You have come quite far. I am pleased with your progress,” the spirit added, her normally still lips curving into a smile.
“Thank you for your praise,” Ling Qi replied, feeling a little embarrassed. “And thank you for inviting me to your home.”
“It is no more than you deserve. Your growing mastery of both the Forgotten Vale and my own art has been nothing short of impressive,” Zeqing replied evenly. Ling Qi didn’t miss the way that Hanyi puffed out her cheeks and kicked her bare feet in agitation. She didn’t mind being used as a motivational prop though.
<Look at you being all mature,> Sixiang mused. <What a good Big Sis you are.>
“I’ve been doing well too, right, Mother?” Hanyi asked, a pleading note in her voice.
“You have shown your dedication,” Zeqing answered neutrally.
Ling Qi smiled, reaching over to ruffle the child spirit’s hair. “You’ve been working hard. I bet you’ll catch up to me in your Mother’s arts in no time.”
Hanyi batted her hand away and huffed. “Obviously! I won’t lose,” she declared, crossing her arms.
“It seems I have nothing to worry about then,” Zeqing said lightly, but there was a hint of something else in her voice.
<How frightening. She wants to eat you both.> Sixiang shivered. <You can sit here in front of her, but you freak out at a bit of cavorting. How strange.>
Ling Qi mentally shushed the Dream spirit. Whatever her nature, Zeqing wouldn’t deliberately hurt her. The indecency of the other dream spirits was a whole other matter. “So, what brought on this invitation anyway?”
“Nothing of particular import,” Zeqing replied, raising an eyebrow. “I simply wished to show my delight with your progress. I had thought you might enjoy my refreshments as well,” she added, drinking from her own cup.
“It is very good,” Ling Qi agreed, glancing down at her own watered wine. The sweetness and chill reminded her of a crisp winter’s morning, and it had an odd edge to it that she couldn’t easily describe. “What are the fruits outside anyway?”
“Rimefruit. But I know not what your kind calls this particular breed,” Zeqing answered. “They grow south of the mountains of the Wall, but my presence allows them to grow in these warmer climes.”
They were on top of a mountain above the line of the clouds. If she were a mortal, she would be a frozen corpse, Ling Qi thought a bit incredulously. How cold were the southern lands? “They must be very rare then,” Ling Qi commented. “Are you sure it is fine for me to drink this?”
“My portion of the harvest is at my disposal,” Zeqing said, just a bit sharply. “In any case, you have given us a tale. As your hostess, it is only appropriate that I return the favor.”
Ling Qi took another careful sip of the cool wine and settled in to listen as Zeqing began to spin a tale of confounding a band of Cloud Tribe hunters ranging far from their territory and their increasing panic and desperation as she picked them off one by one.
She found herself smiling as Hanyi clapped in delight with the description of each takedown. The tale was a bit grisly, but… this was nice.
She would look back on this fondly in the coming days.