She was blind, she couldn’t feel her limbs, and the only sound was the rushing of wind in her ears. Even her grasp of air currents told her nothing. Panic rose in her chest, and yet, Ling Qi could not so much as scream.
Then she impacted the ground in a heap, and feeling and sight returned. Ling Qi scrambled to her feet, her fingers scrabbling at cold, packed earth. She was surrounded by trees and a thick mist that cloaked everything beyond a handful of meters from sight. Ling Qi let out a hiss of pain as the wound in her shoulder and the lesser cuts strewn across her body throbbed in pain.
She was alone.
… Where was she?
Ling Qi blinked as a single piece of paper fluttered down in front of her eyes as if to answer her panicked internal train of thought. She snatched it out of the air despite the twinge of pain from the rapid motion. The shard of ice in her shoulder had melted, but the wound was still bleeding badly.
Grimacing, Ling Qi glanced at the neat lettering on the page, but she put it aside for the moment, weighting the page down with the looted staff. Flipping one of her remaining knives into her good hand, she cut the bloodied sleeve from her gown then carefully trimmed it into strips with which to bind the wound. Ling Qi was no first aid expert but she could manage this much. Once the bleeding had been stanched, she turned her attention to the note.
Congratulations, lucky disciple!
Having defeated your competition early, you have been granted a head start on the second test. Do not waste this advantage. Unlike the previous test, your personal resourcefulness and character is to be judged, and as such, you will begin alone. Do not expect to find your previous allies here.
Your task is to reach the Celestial Dragon Temple at the end of the path. All roads lead to the temple, but not all roads are equal. Each contains different challenges, opportunities, and for the astute disciple, rewards. The final selection will begin at sundown within the walls of the temple. Do not lose the token included with this document. It must be presented to gain entry to the temple.
Well, wasn’t that great, Ling Qi thought darkly. This didn't really seem like something Instructor Zhou would set up either, which meant there were other elders involved. Now she couldn't even count on her spotty knowledge of what the burly man would be looking for. Well... the other option was that she simply had not judged Instructor Zhou as well as she had thought.
Before her eyes, the paper disintegrated and deposited a smooth circle of silver engraved with the character for moon in her hands. The moment that the token came to rest in her palm, a chill wind picked up. Ling Qi shivered, looking up to see the mist had begun to lift, extending the range of her vision.
On the left, the peaked rooftops of a town could be seen in the distance, and to the right, the path sloped downward toward the glimmering surface of a lake, barely visible through the trees. The center path lead toward the dark shape of a mountain in the distance.
As the sun was already on its way toward the horizon, her time was limited. It was hardly a choice. Ling Qi was a city girl, and she would much rather navigate the streets than a mountain path or a lake.
After checking her makeshift bandages one more time, Ling Qi straightened her shoulders and began to walk toward the city. As she did, the brief gust that had dispelled the mist passed, and her vision once again shrunk down to a few meters. The path she found herself walking was narrow and unpaved with tall trees looming on either side. All around lay darkness and mist twisting into unpleasant shapes. Ling Qi found herself tensing at every rustle, clutching the wooden staff she still carried in her left hand tightly. She could hear whispers, like bugs crawling on her brain, murmuring unintelligible words and enticements directly into her thoughts.
Ling Qi had always avoided the outskirts of Tonghou for exactly that reason. No one she had talked to when she was younger could hear the same sounds she could. She now knew that they were the whispers of lesser spirits, and although her ability to hear them was a result of her talent, it was still uncomfortable.
She would be safe as long as she didn’t leave the road. Ling Qi had just passed a pair of the stone lanterns that served to ward the road against spirits; she just had to ignore them and press on. It was in being lured off the road that people died.
She did wonder what it would be like to step from the road once she could understand and contend with spirits properly. Would it be better to know what was being said or worse?
Ling Qi shook off such ponderings and focused on the path ahead of her, keeping up a good jogging pace. Her strides ate up ground quickly, the shadowy mist-filled forest and the twisting faces and ghost lights under its boughs beginning to blur by as she found her pace. Still, every footfall jarred her wounded shoulder slightly. Ling Qi was glad when she saw the high stone walls looming ahead in the mist.
... It was a little odd though. She hadn’t thought the city was so close given how far away it had looked from the intersection. She had probably just misjudged the distance or how quickly she could cover ground now.
As the walls grew solid in the mist ahead, Ling Qi slowed down to a sedate walk. As was expected, there were guards at the gate, looking just as imposing as she remembered from her childhood. They wore heavy, banded armor and held the sturdy spears traditional for those assigned to guard the outermost walls. It was strange to think that according to her lessons, she was probably as strong or stronger than most of them in cultivation now.
It still wouldn’t do to start trouble or get cocky. Even if she could match a city guard in cultivation, they were probably better than her at actually fighting. Ling Qi did her best to look confident and unworried as she approached them. The guards had no reason to stop or impede her, and besides, not looking suspicious was half of the solution to avoid getting caught or questioned.
She felt disquieted by the absence of anyone else on the road, or immediately inside the gate. Even this late in the afternoon, there would usually be some traffic.
Ling Qi passed the guards without a word, and although she felt their eyes follow her, none of them moved to stop her, which was strange in and of itself. Travelers usually had to pay a gate tax and give an accounting of their purpose, didn’t they? Maybe the guards had been informed that disciples would be coming through today?
As Ling Qi proceeded farther past the gate, she looked furtively at the lightless buildings on either side of the street. There were a handful of people in the street here, but they walked quickly and with their heads down. Ling Qi had a disquieting feeling in her gut; the oddities that were stacking up were getting on her nerves.
She had to focus on her goal. Big temples were usually in the central district of the cities, along with mansions of the ministers and lords. The Celestial Dragon was one of the monikers for the great spirit that had accompanied the Sage Emperor in his crusade to unite the Empire, so her temple would be quite grand.
Normally, she would worry about gaining passage into the inner sections of the city, but she was a Sect disciple now. She probably wouldn’t be turned away like she would have a month ago. The number of people in the streets slowly increased as she moved away from the gate, but the city still felt empty. It didn’t help that everyone she passed seemed… slightly off, eyes sunken as if they hadn’t slept in days, a certain listless hopelessness. The only exception was the city guards who stood watch at at the street corners, sharp eyed and straight backed.
Ling Qi’s shoulder twinged again, and the cut on her leg throbbed, reminding her of one of the reasons she had chosen the city. A physician would be able to dress and bind her wounds.
However, she didn’t want to spend any more time here than necessary. She doubted it would be so easy, but going straight to the temple would be for the best if it were possible. To that end, she did something that she never would have in her pre-Sect life.
“Excuse me, but do you know where the Celestial Dragon’s temple is?” Ling Qi asked politely as she stopped in front of the next guard she came across. She was all too aware of her missing sleeve and bare arm, not to mention the hanging flap caused by the cut in the lower part of her gown, but she did her best to appear confident.
The stern faced man glanced over her with practiced disinterest. “It is in the center of the city. The tallest building. You can see the roof from here,” he responded with slow, measured words, eyes flicking away from her to watch the street.
That was… simpler than she had thought. “Oh, thank you,” Ling Qi belatedly remembered to say. “I’m not from around here so I wasn’t sure.”
As she was about to walk away, the man spoke up in the same unhurried tone. “You will not be able to enter as you are. Only those bearing tokens of the Sun, Moon, and Star are to be allowed into the central city tonight.”
“Wait, there are three tokens? … Of course there are,” she began loudly and ended in a frustrated mutter.
“I don’t suppose you know where I can acquire the other tokens, do you?” she asked, losing a bit of her polite veneer.
“The Sun and Moon are held by your fellow disciples. The five stars are hidden in the city, guarded by spirit and marked by light.” The man’s calm and toneless voice was beginning to irritate her.
The implications also worried her. This meant that she would definitely be targeted by the other disciples and that she would need to target them in turn. She gave the man a curt nod when it was clear that he was finished speaking and left, turning her thoughts to how she would handle this. She would have to keep an eye out for her fellow disciples, as well as for the locations of the Star tokens as well. “Marked by light” sounded fairly obvious. “Guarded by Spirit” sounded troubling. The only spirit she had ever faced was Bai Cui hogging the hearth, and she had a feeling that whatever guarded the tokens wouldn’t be a lazy little serpent.
Was it possible that the whole thing was a trick? It didn’t seem like the kind of thing Elder Zhou would do, but neither did this test. Her instincts told her the guard had been holding something back. She had no doubt she wouldn't be able to walk right up to the temple without the three tokens, but if she could arrive without them, would she be turned away? The message at the beginning had only said she would need her moon token.
One thing was for certain: she needed to get her wounds taken care of.
A light touch on her makeshift bandage was enough to feel the stickiness of the blood soaking through the thin fabric. Tough as the disciple uniforms were, they didn’t seem very absorbent. However, that was not the real problem. Money was. The services of a real physician were expensive, and even if she resorted to a street peddler hawking poultices and salves, she would need something to pay him with.
Her first thought was to simply steal some funds. It wouldn’t be hard. She had lived for years on pickpocketing and other larceny… but what if she was being observed? This was a test after all. It was possible, even likely, that she was being watched right now by whoever who was supervising the exam. She still knew so little about what more powerful cultivators could actually do so she had to rely on the sort of whispered hearsay that one heard about them. Ling Qi mulled over the problem in her head as she asked passersby about where she could find a physician.
It shouldn’t be a problem, she eventually decided. The Sect had taken her, knowing who and what she was. Besides, she had a suspicion that this wasn’t entirely real anyway. Otherwise, how could the temple be at the end of all three paths, and why was this city so eerily quiet?
Stealing was even easier than she remembered and not just because she actually had a proper knife to cut purse strings with. Her marks never noticed a thing as her fingers found their pockets and purses. Were people always so easy to read and predict in motion? It startled her, how much more quickly her hands and fingers could move and how quickly she could adjust for her targets’ reactions.
She quickly acclimated and soon had a fairly healthy purse of coin. This was more than she would have managed in a month when she was a mortal. It was too bad that coins were of limited value to her now. She had nothing to spend them on back at the mountain.
While that was a bit of a dampener on her good mood, she didn’t let it distract her. Even with the disturbingly listless nature of the citizens of this city, it wasn’t really too difficult to get directions to a physician’s practice.
However, following the directions was more problematic. As Ling Qi moved deeper into the city, the streets grew more cramped, buildings huddling tightly on every side. Debris and obstacles appeared on some streets, blocking her path and forcing her to detour. The roads seemed to twist back on themselves. Several times, she had to stop herself when she noticed that she had gotten turned around. She was beginning to suspect some cultivator magic at work, especially as the last vestiges of human presence outside her own disappeared.
Just as she was about to turn back and escape the labyrinthine streets, she found her destination. A sign bearing the mark of a physician’s practice hung creaking from the overhang which shadowed the doorway. The small building was well cared for, unlike some of its more shabby neighbors, with bright blue tiles on its roof.
Ling Qi approached warily, catching the scent of herbs and incense. Peering through the window, she saw that the front room was empty of other people. Strings of drying herbs hung from the ceiling, swaying slowly with the slight breeze from the open door.
After a moment of hesitation, Ling Qi entered, squinting in the darkened building. The walls were obscured by shelves laden with pots and jars, each with their own neatly written label identifying them as the cure to some ailment or another. The floor was mostly bare, save for a space off to one side where a number of cushions were arranged artfully around a polished table.
A wooden placard on the table read: “Please Wait Warmly”. The odd phrasing made Ling Qi glare suspiciously at it before she approached the apparent waiting area. There was a door on the rear wall with a light shining from underneath it so the physician was probably here.
“Hello? I’m sorry for the intrusion, but are you still open?” she called out, doing her best to sound both polite and friendly. Ling Qi had asked for the best public physician. With her sudden windfall, she thought she could afford better care than usual. After the eerie journey, she was less sure if this had been a good idea.
She received no immediate answer to her call, but she did catch a few sounds from beyond the door. Maybe they were busy? From her limited understanding of medicine, Ling Qi was aware that mixing and creating cures could be delicate and volatile. It was one of legitimate professions she had daydreamed of back before it became clear she didn’t have such choices.
Ling Qi decided she would wait a bit before moving on. It definitely wasn’t an excuse to rest her feet. Her calves still twinged unpleasantly from the hour crouched uncomfortably in the dark of the barracks. It wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle, but it wasn’t pleasant either. She settled herself down on one of the soft cushions in a position where she could keep an eye on both doors.
Ling Qi did her best to relax while remaining alert as the minutes ticked by. As she was considering leaving, the door finally cracked open, and a woman stepped out.
At first, Ling Qi thought the physician was an old woman due to the silver hair done up in an elaborate bun. Another glance showed that assumption to be wrong. The physician looked to be middle aged at most with a motherly air about her despite the odd youthfulness of her features.
The physician wore a blue and red gown of simple cut with scandalously short sleeves. A second look showed that they were simply rolled up. The woman glanced around searchingly before her eyes fell upon Ling Qi.
“Oh, there you are.” The physician’s voice was warm and maternal, much like her appearance. “I apologize for the wait. With all my sisters and assistants out tonight, I haven’t been able to keep up with things,” she said with a sigh as she approached with measured, graceful steps.
“It’s fine,” Ling Qi said awkwardly. “Is there something special happening tonight?” she asked. It couldn’t hurt to start gathering more information.
“Shouldn’t you know? You are one of the disciples we’re expecting, aren’t…” she trailed off then, her eyes shifting away from Ling Qi’s face. “Oh! That is a nasty wound. It’s so dark in here that I almost didn’t notice. I suppose you’re here to get that dressed then?”
Ling Qi almost asked her why the physician kept her building so poorly lit but thought better of it as the woman glided forward to examine her. “Yes. I ah… had a little trouble on the way in,” she admitted.
“I hope you gave whatever ruffians attacked a polite young girl what for then.” The physician huffed as she kneeled in front of Ling Qi, fingers plucking at the amateur dressing on her shoulder. “Miss…”
Ling Qi remembered the ice wielding girl’s expression in the instant before the fire consumed her. “... It was taken care of,” she responded quietly. “My name is Ling Qi. How much will this treatment cost and how long will it take?” She almost winced as the words tumbled out of her mouth. She was supposed to chat more before getting down to business, wasn’t she? Hopefully, the woman wouldn’t feel slighted.
“Physician Xin at your service,” the older woman responded politely. “A mere fifteen silver should be fine, I think, for a Sect disciple,” she added as she placed a pair of clay pots on the table beside them. Ling Qi almost winced at the price, but she had more than enough to pay for the treatment. It just… went against her ingrained instincts to spend so much at once. She had gotten by for entire weeks on less before.
“And it will take no more than a quarter hour. Could you turn this way, please?” Physician Xin said, patiently waiting for Ling Qi to comply. Physician Xin began to gently but deftly pick apart Ling Qi’s work.
“We - I mean, the Sect disciples - were expected then?” Ling Qi asked carefully, trying not to grimace as the doctor peeled away the bloodstained cloth she had wrapped around her shoulder.
Physician Xin glanced away from Ling Qi’s shoulder to meet her eyes, a pleasant smile on her pale face. “You do seem to be a bit early, but the disciples were expected.”
The doctor took a pinch of off-white powder from one of the vessels and sprinkled it into a small cup of steaming water. Ling Qi’s eyes stung briefly. When had Physician Xin gotten that? It… Oh, she had been carrying it when she came out of the back.
Ling Qi really was tired if she was missing details like that.
“Things will get much more exciting once more of your peers arrive. My nieces are quite looking forward to the chance to meet young, handsome cultivators.”
Ling Qi grit her teeth as Physician Xin dipped a cloth in the now cloudy white liquid in the cup and began to carefully clean her wound. It was less painful than she thought it would be. Whatever was in the water dulled the pain and made her skin tingle pleasantly.
“I don’t know if my fellow disciples will be able to focus on anything but the test, but with boys, who knows.” It was a weak joke, but Ling Qi really wasn’t good at small talk. It didn’t help that she felt incredibly nervous for some reason.
“Are you a cultivator too?” Ling Qi asked, voicing the suspicion she had since she had seen the woman’s too young face.
“I suppose I am in a sense,” Physician Xin replied, dabbing at the wound to clear the last of the blood. The doctor set the cloth down and opened the other vessel, revealing it to be full of some thick bone white paste. “I leave that sort of thing to my husband these days, even if I do try to keep in practice,” she continued pleasantly. The doctor dipped a flat metal implement into the paste to scoop some up before beginning to spread it over the wound.
“Why, now that I think about it, I do believe we met on a night much like this.”
Ling Qi nodded absently, still feeling inexplicably on edge. She glanced around the room, but she couldn’t find a source for her unease.
“I guess it’s good to know that you can move on from the army stuff,” she murmured under her breath. “Do you know anything about the test and these tokens we’re supposed to find?”
“Nothing you couldn’t figure out on your own, although I would suggest you not take things at face value,” the doctor responded mysteriously as she moved on to bandaging Ling Qi’s shoulder.
The soreness was gone now, and Ling Qi felt almost invigorated. The medicinal paste Physician Xin had used must have been good quality.
“You’re a smart girl. My sister, Tsan, has high hopes for you.”
Ling Qi blinked as the woman continued to expertly bandage her shoulder, her unease doubling.
“What do you mean? I’ve never met your sister.” Something was at the edge of her thoughts, screaming for attention, but she couldn’t quite grasp it.
Physician Xin made a sound of satisfaction as she finished her work and smiled. “Oh my, you noticed that? Perceptive given how clouded your thoughts are. Think about it, dear. I’m certain you’ll figure it out.” She patted Ling Qi’s hand.
Ling Qi met the woman’s eyes and stiffened. They were black, deep and infinite as the night sky and radiant with the light of a thousand stars.
A spirit - she had wandered into a spirit’s domain! Ling Qi felt her panic begin to rise then...
She was kneeling in the street. There was no sign of the building she had just been in.
All at once, it hit her. Ling Qi had been nervous because the woman kept pulling things out of nowhere: the water, the bandages, the tools. Not to mention those eyes. Had she just had a pleasant conversation with a spirit?
It was at that moment she noticed she was holding something in the hand that Physician Xin… the spirit had patted. It was a small clay vessel sealed with a cork.
Even as she stood up, hurrying out of the middle of the street, curiosity drove her to open it. Inside, Ling Qi found three shimmering silver pills and a stick of jade so dark green that it appeared black. The scent that wafted out on a cloud of silver mist made her think of dark, moonless nights.
The scent finally flushed the lingering fog from her thoughts and she realized what seemed now to be an obvious conclusion.
Xin and Tsan. New and Crescent.
Xin had said that her sister had high hopes for her… The Grinning Moon was supposed to smile on those who did their work out of sight and out of mind. Ling Qi had burned incense for the Grinning Moon before when she had been afraid of failing at a particularly difficult theft.
Ling Qi wasn’t sure how she felt about having the direct attention of a Great Spirit, even if it was a relatively minor one not often included in official rolls. She glanced down at her shoulder. It was expertly bandaged and didn’t hurt any longer. At least that had been real… probably. How real was anything right now?