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With this the last week before the start of the tournament, Ling Qi redoubled her efforts to deepen her understanding of many of her core arts, building off the last few months of heavy practice. Ling Qi achieved the sixth step in her Sable Crescent Step art, gaining the coalesced Grinning Crescent Dancer technique. This was the culmination of the arts other techniques, allowing her to access the full utility of her movement art.

When not cultivating, with the help of Li Suyin, she constructed an eagle Ossuary Horror and the bird scouts that made it up. Carving so many of the tiny formation arrays into the bones of the skulls and spines of the little birds that would make up her construct was time-consuming. Tedium aside, her efforts paid off. 

She kept it assembled and active while stored in her ring so that she would be able to release it as quickly as she could draw a weapon. With Deepwood Vitality stored in the horror, she had no doubt it would be able to serve its purpose as a screen and support in at least one battle. She would need to choose the best moment to deploy it.

Ling Qi was spending spirit stones like water in these last few days. Even the lingering frugality of her mortal days couldn’t make her regret it. Her Sect points were spent as quickly as she gained them to receive tutoring.

With the help of an Inner Sect tutor, she was able to work through some of the stumbling blocks that had been stymying her advancement. There was the Abyssal Exhalation Art, which she had plundered from Yan Renshu. She couldn’t help but feel that the art didn’t suit her, but she couldn’t be picky yet. She achieved the fourth breath of Abyssal Exhalation, which strengthened and reinforced the worm constructs summoned by the art. The technique to call them was qi-expensive and the summoned worms would never defeat a peer on their own, but they could harry, distract, and entangle. The rest of her time with the tutor was spent learning how to avoid disrupting them when she empowered them with her other arts, such as Thousand Ring Fortress and Argent Current.

Ling Qi was also studying with Zeqing to Master the penultimate melody of the Forgotten Vale. She learned the Traveler’s End technique, which empowered the qi constructs of the other Forgotten Vale Melody techniques even further, making the effects more durable and long lasting. While active, the mist would not fade, even if Ling Qi ceased to play herself, and it would protect the mist by forcing absorbing any attempts to disrupt and dispel it. Truly mastering the art would require higher cultivation, but for now, she had another potent tool at her disposal.

There was one art which she could fully complete though. Ling Qi had won the Argent Mirror Art from the same trial that had gotten her Zhengui, the trial which Meizhen and she had undertaken together. It was not a flashy art; as a perception and spiritual defense art, its effects were mostly passive. It allowed her to read qi auras and peer through illusions. Mastering the fifth and final true reflection stage was much the same. By pulsing her qi in just the right way, she could disrupt spiritual or illusory arts that had taken hold of her.

as she cultivated the art, she began to comprehend it more. All arts were lessons. They taught their user how to manipulate their qi in the right way to alter the way the world worked, if only for a moment. 

As she sat beside the vent which she and her friends had won through investigation and battle so early in the year and cultivated the art’s final secrets, Ling Qi found herself pondering the lessons held within the art. Argent Mirror was an art about sincerity. By knowing herself, her own truth, she could in turn see through external deceptions.

But it was hard to not lie to herself, to not rationalize or deceive herself in order to reach the conclusion that she had already decided that she wanted in the layers of the mind beneath conscious thought. In her thoughts, she found herself visualizing a mirror, a reflection. Was having that mirror always in her thoughts something she could live with?

Ling Qi thought of her mother and the lies she had told herself to make their separation less painful. She thought of Xiulan, who had been so hurt by the quiet lie that had existed between her and Han Jian. She thought of Meizhen and the strained awkwardness that had existed between them for so many months.

She thought that she could live facing the truth. Ling Qi would only ever be herself.

***

With the week winding down, Ling Qi didn’t allow herself to forget her plans to check on Xiulan and Meizhen. She was glad that she hadn’t when she reached Xiulan’s training field early on the last day of the week.

Her friend looked positively haggard, her normally immaculate appearance disheveled and smudged by ash. Xiulan’s aura had grown significantly more potent to Ling Qi’s senses despite having not broken through in her physique. The other girl appeared to have spent this final week building her qi reserves in preparation for the tournament. She had also reduced the training field to a barren, charred plain with whole stretches of the soil glimmering like glass.

“Xiulan, when was the last time you slept?” Ling Qi asked as she approached the other girl, picking her way through the field. “Or bathed for that matter?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.

Her friend shot her a dirty look as the blazing flames leaking from the corners of her eyes and the tips of her fingers faded. “Just last evening,” she sniffed. “You shall excuse me for not wishing to waste scents and cosmetics in the midst of a stretch of intense training.”

As if that itself wasn’t a great change from the girl she had met at the beginning of the year, Ling Qi thought. “And sleeping? Xiulan, you are beginning to resemble a racoon dog.”

Xiulan raised her uninjured hand, touching her cheek just below where the dark circle under her eye ended. “... Perhaps three months ago,” she muttered. “What did you want, Ling Qi? I cannot imagine that you took time from your own training merely to comment on my appearance,” she demanded.

“I didn’t,” Ling Qi admitted. “I took some time out because I wanted to speak to you about taking a break.”

“I hardly have the time. The tournament will start in a matter of days,” Xiulan snapped. “Ling Qi, we cannot all…”

<Interrupt. You can’t let her get going,> Sixiang murmured.

“You are more intelligent than this, Xiulan,” Ling Qi said flatly. “I do not know what it is like to have lightning on the brain,” she began, using the Argent Mirror to eyeher friend’s nigh blinding aura and its crackling radiant core, “but I know what the tempting whispers of the dark are like. Gu Xiulan, this is not you.”

Xiulan scowled and opened her mouth to speak before stopping herself, her eyes narrowing. Her aura shuddered, flickering wildly, before the blazing furnace of her spirit dimmed, grounded and banked. “Spirits,” Xiulan said. “I am a bit of a mess, aren’t I?” She looked down at her charred and soot-stained gown. “Ancestors above, Mother is coming for the tournament! If I appear like this…”

“It will be fine,” Ling Qi said, patting her friend on her good shoulder. “It’s nothing a night out and a good sleep won’t fix. I just wanted to make sure you got that before you ran out of time.”

“Even now, I want to refuse and resume training,” Xiulan grimaced. “Perhaps Sister Yanmei was correct about including a calmer element in my repertoire.”

“That might not be the worst idea,” Ling Qi said agreeably. “Will you be alright now though?”

“I think I will,” Xiulan replied, looking down at her good hand and flexing her fingers as sparks danced between the digits. “I should thank you.”

“Think nothing of it,” Ling Qi dismissed. “Just do the same for me, if you would.”

“Of course,” Xiulan said. “I suppose you had something in mind?”

“I had considered a trip to that shop with the shaved ice desserts to cool your head,” Ling Qi teased, relaxing now that her friend seemed to have regained her senses. “But perhaps a visit to the bath house first?”

“That seems acceptable,” Xiulan agreed, stepping past her, the glassed soil crunching under her shoes. “I shall have to see if I can do anything with that tangle on your head. I am not the only one who has let themselves go.”

“I let my hair hang free as a choice,” They were easily falling back into their old rhythm.

“Foolish girl, you will be standing before half or more of the notables in the Emerald Seas next week. You cannot seriously mean to go out without even styling your hair.” Xiulan rolled her eyes as they exited the ruined training ground.

If her friend’s smirk was a bit brittle and her playful tone a bit forced, Ling Qi chose not to notice it.

***

Ling Qi was in good cheer as she made her way up the street of the residential district, having parted ways with Xiulan. Their day together had been nostalgic. This past year seemed longer than several of the previous put together. She still worried for her friend, but she wouldn’t infantilize the other girl by following her home to ensure that she went to rest.

Ling Qi found herself strolling along the street slowly, observing the little homes in their neatly laid out rows. She would miss this place. Despite the troubles she had faced in the Outer Sect this year, this had been her first real home since she had been very young. Although she had decided to leave it behind, she didn’t think she would ever quite shake that connection to the Argent Peak Sect.

This affection was probably intentional.

<No reason to think of it in such poor terms,> Sixiang whispered. <Do the intentions of this place’s builders change your memories?>

She supposed they didn’t. As she arrived at her home, she was surprised to feel Meizhen’s presence inside, as well as Cui’s. The other girl had been busy as well, so they had only seen each other at the Black Pool this week. Stepping inside, Ling Qi made her way to the dining room where she found her friend seated at the table. Meizhen was watching the stars through the window, Cui looped loosely around her shoulders..

“Taking it easy this last night as well?” Ling Qi asked, leaning against the doorframe. 

“I intend to be well rested on the morrow, yes,” Bai Meizhen replied softly, idly stroking Cui’s head. Her faintly glowing eyes flicked Ling Qi’s way. “And regardless of what happens, this is the last day we will be living together.”

“It is,” Ling Qi agreed quietly, moving to take a seat beside her friend. Cui’s tongue flicked disdainfully at her. “How is Zhengui? He was cultivating in the garden when I left earlier.”

Asleep, the child,” Cui hissed.

“Thank you for looking out for him,” Ling Qi replied. “I hope he did not try your patience too much.”

“Cui is always pleased to receive praise and admiration. Do not let her fool you,” Meizhen said dryly. Cui turned up her snout in response, not dignifying her cousin’s comment with a response.

As the resulting silence began to stretch, Ling Qi said, “I’m thankful for everything you’ve done for me since the first day at the Sect. I know I must have been frustrating to deal with.”

“You were,” Meizhen agreed, the corners of her lips quirking upward in a smile.

“You aren’t supposed to agree so readily,” Ling Qi complained, her own smile putting the lie to her words. “And… I won’t apologize again, but… I have never meant you harm.”

She could sense Cui’s irritation, but Meizhen simply gave the tiniest of nods, her expression serene. “I know,” she acknowledged. “And although I am no Zheng ruffian to share blood oaths, I do wish you to understand that to me, you are my closest friend.”

“You as well,” Ling Qi echoed, leaning back in her seat. “We’ll have to seal it over a drink sometime - unless that’s too coarse as well,” she added teasingly.

“I suppose I could look into a vintage from home,” Meizhen said, a touch of amusement in her voice. “It is always amusing to see outsiders attempt to keep them down.”

“I’ll show you,” Ling Qi said with mock confidence before growing more serious. “I’m glad I met you.”

“The feeling is mutual,” her best friend replied, looking back to the square of sky visible outside the window. “Good fortune to you in this coming trial, Qi.”

“Good fortune to you as well, Meizhen,” Ling Qi murmured, resting her hands behind her head. This was a fine way to spend the last night before the tournament.

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