The day of Elder Zhou’s test had come.
Sunrise saw Ling Qi at the field where pockets of mist clung sullenly to the ground, mirroring the groups of disciples that awaited the start of the test. There were nearly a hundred people here, many of whom she had never seen before. They must have been taking lessons on the days she was attending spiritual class.
To avoid exacerbating her nerves, Ling Qi ignored them and moved to join Han Jian and the others. Han Jian greeted her with a confident smile and Han Fang a nod, doing much to dispel her fretting. Fan Yu still glanced at her with disdain, but Gu Xiulan at least seemed to grudgingly accept her presence, moving over to give her room to join their little circle.
When Elder Zhou appeared, he gestured for the test takers to follow him further up the mountain. They walked a steep cliffside path, eventually reaching a paved plaza overlooked by a stone pagoda. In the center of the plaza was a ring of black tiles surrounded by a complex arrangement of narrow stone pillars. Every tile and pillar carried a single unreadable character carved into its surface that glowed with a ghostly blue light.
“Once you pass through the ring, the test will begin. Each squad will be transported to one of the Sect’s training sites. There, you will find tasks laid out for you. You will pass the first test when you have fulfilled all the tasks given.” Elder Zhou barked as he looked out over the crowd sternly, muscular arms crossed over his chest. “I will not lie. There is some danger of death should you overreach yourselves. If you fear that, do not enter! Once you begin the test, you will not be able to return to this plaza until the test is complete or you fail.”
Although a few squads were called before them, Han Jian’s group was among the first to be transported to the test site. While Ling Qi didn’t manage to stride in as confidently as the others in her group, she liked to think her hesitation wasn’t obvious. The groups that entered before them had vanished between one blink of the eye and the next, stolen away by the magic of the circle. As she stepped past the innermost circle of pillars, vertigo and blackness hit her. Ling Qi stumbled as the ground seemed to tilt beneath her, only to catch herself on something hard.
She blinked and then flushed, pushing herself upright and off of Han Fang’s chest.
“Sorry. I just…” Ling Qi lost track of her words as she peered around. The group was at the base of a steep stone path leading up a mountain of black stone. More alarmingly, just a half dozen feet behind them, the path crumbled away, revealing that the mountain was suspended in air over a yawning void of mist with no apparent bottom.
She was shaken out of her stupor by the mute boy clapping a hand on her shoulder. He offered her a crooked smile as she looked back up to his face and then nodded to Han Jian and the others, who were looking unsettled as well.
Han Jian cleared his throat. “Right. Well, ignoring the bottomless pit... It looks like I have the instructions for the first part of the test.” He waved a sheet of paper.
“There’s a small fort at the top of this… island. We’re to occupy and hold it for the next two hours. There are two other groups on the island with us, and only one group is allowed to hold the fort at a time. We can also win if we’re the last ones standing but only if we’re within the fort. “Thoughts?”
“That’s simple enough. Just eliminate the other groups before they reach it then proceed to the fort,” Gu Xiulan said cheerfully. “There will be no trouble holding it then.”
Han Jian hummed thoughtfully. “We could do that, but defending the fort might be easier if we can get there first.”
“I would rather not hole up and let others dictate the pace,” Fan Yu grumbled. Fang gestured to indicate that he agreed with Han Jian.
Ling Qi glanced around nervously before tentatively offering her opinion. “I think... We should listen to Han Jian. He’s supposed to be the leader, right? And I don’t know if we, um, have any good ways of searching for the other groups...” Ling Qi relaxed somewhat when her words didn’t spark hostility.
“I doubt the other disciples will be hard to find. But -” Gu Xiulan huffed, crossing her arms under her chest, and glanced at her frowning fiancee. “Could you feel them through the ground, Yu?”
“... Not at any real distance. I have not yet mastered that part of the Yellow Mountain arts.” Fan Yu shot Ling Qi an irritated look, missing the flicker of contempt in his fiancee’s eyes at the response. Ling Qi just glared back. That was not her fault.
“Which is why I figured defense was our best bet,” Han Jian cut in firmly. “We don’t have anyone with extended senses yet.”
“Then why ask at all?” Ling Qi asked curiously as the group began to climb the steep stone path, keeping a wary eye on the cliffs above.
“A leader needs to hear his subordinates even if he thinks he knows best,” Han Jian responded as if by rote. “Otherwise he might miss something. We should quiet down and get marching. We’ll be moving double time so that I can survey the area around the target and set things up in our favor.”
Han Jian’s words seemed to ease Fan Yu’s tension and drew an admiring sigh from Gu Xiulan. Han Fang simply shook his head and made a sound like a rasping cough that Ling Qi was fairly certain meant laughter from the mute boy.
As they picked up the pace, Ling Qi worked to slot into the formation they had practiced. The pace Han Jian set was a punishing one, enough to leave her red-faced and out of breath by the time they finally reached the first plateau a quarter of an hour later. She was glad that she had gained so much endurance in the past month. Some part of her still felt wonder that she was only winded after practically sprinting for nearly a quarter of an hour. Thanks to the qi that had seeped into, and empowered her body, the march was merely tiring and not exhausting.
Their advantages as one of the first groups seemed to be holding as they pushed on, slowed only slightly by the lightly forested terrain. Despite the obstruction, a banner bearing the sable dragon and violet phoenix of the Empire was visible far ahead, flapping from the top of a watchtower of the fort they were aiming to reach. The banner made navigation an easy task but also increased the urgency of their march since the other groups would easily see it as well.
Han Jian gave them a minute or two to catch their breath before signalling everyone to spread out slightly and continue. Ling Qi was a moment behind the others in following the silent order, and it made her wish that she had been able to take more time to sync herself with the group. Despite the fact that she was keeping up, it still felt like those few awkward times that she had fallen in with other street urchins. Like she didn’t really belong here.
Ling Qi ruthlessly shut down that niggling self doubt and focused her attention on the scraggly trees and underbrush around them, straining her ears for any sound that was out of place. The woods were eerily silent, lacking even the faint buzz of insects. The only sound came from the wind blowing through the branches and the rumbling of thunder from the dark and bloated clouds roiling overhead.
The fast pace Han Jian and the others set was all the more difficult here on the uneven ground. It was far more tense as well. At least on the path, the number of directions she had to watch was limited, more like watching a street; here, an enemy could come from any direction.
The others didn’t seem happy with the terrain either. She noticed Gu Xiulan grimacing as her gown was caught now and again on passing branches, and Han Jian nearly stumbled once or twice on a well-hidden tree root. Was this kind of terrain not common in the eastern provinces?
In the end, they burst from the treeline less than ten minutes later. The fort lay ahead, set at the top of what looked to have once been a shallow hill. On three sides, stone and dirt had been sheared away, leaving unnaturally smooth cliffs some five meters high that seemed to flow into the utilitarian gray masonry of the fort’s walls.
The final side was a shallow slope with a rough stairway carved into its center, leading upward to the fort’s only entrance: a gateway wide enough for three men to pass through side by side. The gate itself currently stood open, revealing that the walls were only perhaps a meter thick. This really was a small fort; even Tonghou’s outermost walls were thicker than that.
The two forward corners held rounded fortifications raised on stubby towers rising half again the height of the walls above the rest. They were covered by wooden canopies, with the center of each dominated by an odd wooden device. It looked a bit like a crossbow the size of a horse cart. Ling Qi recognized it as a net thrower. She had seen Tonghou’s city guard take down flying spirit beasts with it once or twice. A third tower with another net thrower overlooked the fort’s rear.
As they came to a halt at the bottom of the steps, Ling Qi did her best to catch her breath without being obvious about it. The others were winded as well but none to the same extent as her. Ling Qi’s disciple’s gown clung uncomfortably to her skin and was darkened by sweat in places. She felt even more out of place than usual next to Gu Xiulan, who, at worst, had a few brambles caught on the hem of her gown.
“Weapons out. Stay spread out but within range of our support techniques,” Han Jian said quietly as Han Fang mounted the first of the steps followed by Fan Yu. “We don’t know if someone else made it first and is trying to lure us in so stay alert until we’ve scoped it out.”
Ling Qi flicked one of her sharpened knives into her right hand, pausing to scan the treeline behind them as she did. She didn’t want to be snuck up on either.
They reached the gate without incident, and after a brief scan of the courtyard, Han Jian waved his cousin forward. The larger boy stepped cautiously between the gates, hammer held at the ready. When nothing happened even after Han Fang took several steps inside, Han Jian gestured for Fan Yu and Gu Xiulan to watch the approach to the fort as he and Ling Qi stepped inside.
The courtyard was a field of packed dirt with a set of steps on each wall leading up to the battlements. In the center stood a stone square of a building with a single door and only a handful of narrow arrow slits for windows. It looked far too small to hold more than a handful of people at a time.
“If I remember correctly, the fortifications in this region usually have their barracks and support buildings underground because Imperial Earth arts are superior to those of the barbarians and flat space is at a premium in the mountains,” Han Jian said from beside her. “But I doubt that shutting ourselves in a hole for a couple hours will satisfy the instructor.”
“Probably not,” Ling Qi responded distractedly as they moved further inside. It might fulfill the letter of the order, but it wasn’t in keeping with the spirit, which might be part of the test. “We could probably retreat to it if we need to,” she added in an unsure tone. “Falling back if you’re overwhelmed is good sense, right?”
Han Jian chuckled. “Depends who you ask. There’s more than one person who would say that any retreat from barbarians is shameful and a dereliction of duty besides.”
“Well, of course,” Gu Xiulan’s voice came from behind her along with the creaking sound of the gates closing.
Ling Qi glanced back to see Fan Yu turning the mechanism to close the heavy gates.
“Retreating in the face of barbarian trash means allowing them in to ravage the poor defenseless little mortals, shame in one’s cowardice aside,” the annoyingly pretty girl said in a chipper voice.
“Sometimes, needs must, but it certainly should not be the first option in mind,” Gu Xiulan added with an irritating smile that made Ling Qi bristle at the implied insult.
Han Jian raised a hand to cut off Ling Qi’s retort and glanced at Han Fang, who was standing beside the door leading into the central building.
“Fang, check inside.”
Ling Qi blinked. That gave her an idea. Maybe they could hide in the barracks and attack whoever came next? Or even wait until the other groups were fighting and attack the winner? She probably would have done that if she were on her own.
“We need to hurry. I doubt we have more than a quarter hour at most before someone reaches us. Less if they’re being impatient,” Han Jian continued, moving purposefully toward his cousin.
“Then we need to find our positions quickly,” Fan Yu grunted as he strode up. “What do you intend, Jian?”
“I think…” Han Jian mused, glancing at the gates. “I think Fang and I should move to the battlements over the gates. His art will be fine for harassing approaching enemies, and even if I’m not great at archery, I can handle a bow.”
“You don’t have one though?” Ling Qi pointed out slowly.
Han Jian glanced at her in confusion and then seemed to understand. “Oh, right. I have it on me; it’s just in storage. Father gave me a small dimensional ring before I left home.”
Ling Qi had no idea what that was, but she didn’t feel like exposing her ignorance further to her companions.
“Yu, I want you down there to hold the gate. It’s going to be broken so we need someone resilient down there to hold any enemies off," Han Jian continued
“And what of us?” Gu Xiulan asked, idly shifting her weight from foot to foot. Han Fang had re-emerged from the central building at this point and nodded to Han Jian, signalling all clear.
“You… should be on one of the watchtowers. Your arts have the best range, and I need someone to keep an eye on the other approaches. I need you to use some tokens to set up alarm formations on the other walls too. I don’t think many disciples could make it over the rear walls, but I could be wrong. I don’t know the arts of every disciple we’re competing against.”
“Ling Qi,” Han Jian looked over at her with a frown. “I’d say that you should go with Xiulan. Leaving someone alone is usually not the best strategy.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Defending a fort with so few people… We’re almost certain to have to retreat to the courtyard if the others are reasonably well-organized,” he muttered in annoyance.
Ling Qi considered, glancing at the still-smiling Gu Xiulan. She didn’t really like the other girl and wasn’t certain she trusted her. Would the other girl really have her back if they were alone?
The whole plan seemed excessively dangerous to her because of how spread out and isolated each person would be. Ling Qi could not help but think that it would be better to hide and ambush the enemy disciples rather than face them head on.
Would it be possible to convince her teammates to listen to her?