In the end, Ling Qi put aside such useless thoughts. She could panic about her possible encounter with a Great Spirit later. For now, she had an exam to pass and a plan to follow.
Her plan was simple, as good ones usually were. She would disguise herself as a commoner and gather information while watching out for her fellow disciples. Cultivators paid little attention to mortals so if she could still pass for one… she was sure she could find advantage there.
It didn’t take very long to find what she was looking for. The entertainment district was full of gaudy storefronts and colorful signs, although it was quieter and less crowded than she was used to. Ling Qi grimaced as she passed in front of seedy business after seedy business, full of women with empty smiles and men who stunk of alcohol and other things. The cloying scents of cheap perfumes and incense was ever-present.
She hated these kind of places. Whatever difficulty and pain she had suffered after leaving her mother and whatever troubles being a cultivator would bring, at least she would never have to serve in a place like this.
Still, it had its uses for her present need. She bought a set of cheap clothing and some cosmetics to disguise herself. She was even able to purchase some rawhide and canvas to wrap her new staff in and hang it over her back. If she were to ambush a fellow disciple, it wouldn’t do to alert them by carrying an obvious talisman.
She used her time purchasing her supplies to slip in innocuous questions about any odd happenings in recent days. It didn’t go as well as she had hoped. The citizens of this city were tight lipped and often apathetic, and getting straight answers from anyone was irritatingly difficult.
Still, she did manage to pick up a few leads, even if the details were lacking. The first was that the city’s sealed catacombs had been opened the day before and not for any funerary rights. A group of city guards had been seen carrying in a large clay urn with something shining from within but leaving empty-handed. The second was that the primary well in the southeastern section of the city had been shut down. Someone had been seen lowering an object that glimmered like starlight into it a few nights ago. In the morning, the guards had removed the bucket and crank that normally adorned the well. Ling Qi didn’t particularly look forward to entering a tomb or climbing down a well, but it seemed these were her best leads.
As she was mulling over which one to follow up on, she heard a commotion further down the street. Voices were raised followed by a crash from something falling to the ground.
Ling Qi spotted the distinctive silver robes of one of her fellow disciples. She vaguely recognized the boy from her lessons though she didn’t recall ever hearing his name. He was thin and gangly with somewhat pinched features and a proud set to his shoulders and demeanor. The impression was reinforced by the way he was berating the owner of one of the many dingy street stalls that lined the narrow streets.
Ling Qi wasn’t close enough to properly overhear, but she could piece together the situation well enough from the wet stain on the front of the boy’s robes and the broken gourd on the ground at his feet. The stall looked to be selling cheap drink, probably brewed in one basement or another, but something had caused a spill. She couldn’t really say who was at fault, but she couldn’t help but pity the merchant. No one else was going to help him.
This was an opportunity. If she could lead that disciple to one of the star tokens, she could wait and take it from him after he had braved whatever dangers there were. She could also just try to rob the other boy for a chance at a sun token and maybe take a competitor out.
For a moment, Ling Qi lost herself in thought, nervously plucking at the sleeves of her new and much drabber clothing. The obvious thing, in her opinion, would be to strike out of the crowd while the boy was distracted with the merchant, but starting a fight in the middle of the street would endanger civilians. Even if the civilians weren’t real, she couldn’t help but think that the Elders would disapprove of a plan that unnecessarily endangered them.
No, that wouldn’t be the best option. But what other options did she have?
While she had never particularly focused on being a scam artist, she had played the role once or twice when more direct methods were off the table. Of course, she had been younger then, and people were less suspicious of being tricked by a child.
She would just have to try. If she continued to stand here agonizing over it, her opportunity would pass. Taking one last moment to steel herself, Ling Qi began to move towards the disciple and the merchant, shifting her posture to a more subservient and fearful one, as was appropriate for a mortal approaching an angry cultivator. She was fairly confident that the boy wouldn’t recognize her under her disguise and hopefully he wouldn’t sense her qi.
As she drew near, she noticed the splotch of red on the left side of the other disciple’s robe and the way he favored his right leg. He was wounded at least as badly as she had been, and perhaps worse given the location of the wound. His robe stuck wetly to him, soaked through, but the lack of dripping indicated the wound was sealed by some means. The sight made her more confident.
“Ah - Excuse me, honored sir,” Ling Qi spoke up as the proud boy wound down from berating the scrawny merchant for poorly securing his goods. She couldn’t see a weapon on him anywhere, but unfortunately, that didn’t necessarily mean anything given the existence of dimensional rings.
The boy didn’t seem too startled so he had been keeping an eye on the people around him. He still snapped his head around to glare down at her… only to fail due to their relative heights. Ling Qi managed to conceal her wince at the flash of irritation in his eyes. Why did she have to be so tall?
“What do you want, girl?” he asked haughtily, crossing his arms over his chest. “I have no business with the rest of you, only this clumsy fool.” He gestured with irritation at the merchant, who was eying her warily over the disciple’s shoulder.
“I am very, very sorry for interrupting you, sir,” Ling Qi continued hurriedly, catching the merchant’s eye as she bowed deeply to the disciple. “Please spare my uncle. I beg your mercy in this matter.” It was a gamble involving the vendor in her lie, but she could probably rely on the man’s survival instincts to have him play along. Besides, someone entirely unrelated choosing to involve themselves in the dispute would be too unbelievable.
She saw the merchant’s eyes widen a fraction before his expression returned to one of abject gratitude and contriteness.
“Oh, Yue. No, please do not involve yourself in your uncle’s foolishness. Sir, this is entirely my fault. Please do not take offense at this girl’s interruption. I will, of course, remunerate you for my carelessness...” Even in this weird city she could rely on people knowing how to act in their self-interest.
The boy scowled, glancing back and forth at the two of them before glancing up at the sky. His expression darkened further at the sight of the steadily sinking sun. “I will dismiss this for the moment as I have other business. You will surrender whatever funds you have in this mangy stall of yours and act as my guide.”
So that’s what he was doing. It was rather ham-handed of him but about what she would expect from a wealthy boy trying to find information in the scummier parts of town.
“Sir?” she spoke up meekly, doing her best to tremble in fear as he turned his glare back to her. “If it is a guide you need, I can serve that role. Disciples such as yourself are here for the tokens hidden in the city, are you not? I saw where the guards placed one of them. I can lead you there, but please, spare my Uncle’s stall. We have so little as it is.”
Ling Qi could see that she had succeeded by the look in the other boy’s eye. “Hmph. You should be thankful to have a niece so filial, old fool,” he said haughtily, eyeing the merchant. Ling Qi suspected that the merchant’s expression of gratitude was not faked at all.
“However,” he added, jabbing a finger toward Ling Qi. “If this is some trick or a waste of my time, I will ensure that your entire family regrets it.”
“Of course, sir.” Ling Qi bobbed her head in another bow. “I would never dream of lying to a lord such as yourself. Would you like me to take you there now?”
“Thank you so much for your mercy, sir,” the merchant added quickly. “Truly, I do not deserve such a dutiful niece.”
The old man barely got another cold glance before the boy’s attention focused on Ling Qi. “I do not have time to waste. Lead me there now, girl.”
Ling Qi restrained the twitch of irritation at his condescension. It meant that her disguise was working. She kept her expression meek and her head bowed. “It’s right this way, sir.”
She only had rather vague directions to the well, which she had decided was better for the sake of her plan, so she would have to bluff and hope he didn’t notice any uncertainty on her part. Thankfully, her fellow disciple was - not foolish, because that could lead to underestimating him, but - less than attentive. Although he kept an eye on his surroundings as he marched stiffly along, concealing the occasional pained hitch in his step, he seemed to have entirely dismissed her as a threat.
It took another quarter of an hour to cross the city and reach the the well she had learned of, partially because she wasn’t familiar with the street layout. The most difficult bit was when she had to convince him to stop and purchase a coil of rope with an explanation of what he would need it for.
Eventually, they reached the square where the well was located, only to find it dark and empty. A few wooden barricades surrounded the squat, knee-high stone ring of the well. It was uncapped with the rope and bucket missing from the bar suspended above it, yet a faint glittering light seemed to shine from the darkness within.
As they wove through the signs along the squares perimeter warning civilians to keep away, she glanced at her temporary companion. He had a certain desperate eagerness to his expression, which she hoped meant she could manage the second part of her plan. She paused a few steps from the well, leaving him to continue on and peer down into it, leaving his back to her.
“Sir? Should I tie the rope for you?” Ling Qi asked quietly, hefting the coil of rope carried on her good shoulder. “Will you need me to look after anything for you while you descend?”
He glanced over his shoulder at her, a frown on his pinched features. “Do not be foolish. I am not going to leave any of my things behind.” He gave a haughty sniff as he turned to fully face her.
“Besides, you will be descending first. I refuse to give you the chance to run off while I am occupied. I don't even know if this place yet contains a token, and I will need a servant to carry a torch.”
Ling Qi blinked. This wasn’t part of the plan.
“Sir?” she asked, injecting a bit of fear into her tone. “I… I’m not sure - I mean - aren’t there s-spirits and other things down there? Please, I led you here, didn’t I? Please don’t make me go into such a place!” With practiced ease, she squeezed a bit of moisture out of the corners of her eyes, doing her best to look frightened and pathetic.
For a moment, Ling Qi thought she had managed to convince him, but then the boy’s expression hardened. “Stop your whining, girl!” he snapped. “You should be thankful to be assisting me like this. You will just have to stay close and…”
She couldn’t do as he asked. If this were the location of a token, there was no way she would get through whatever defenses lay down there without revealing herself as a cultivator. Nor could she realistically refuse him without blowing her cover. It was fairly obvious he intended to use her as a canary given that he intended to make her go down first and play torchbearer.
No. Playing along wasn’t an option.
Ling Qi’s cultivation of Zephyr’s Breath had trained her in the use of throwing knives. This included simple melee forms, but it was nothing so refined that she struck with. It was simple experience in the street that formed most of her response, combined with reflexes honed by ‘training’ with Gu Xiulan. Her shoulder hit the boy’s chest at the same moment a knife dug into his injured side and twisted.
He let out a yelp of pain and surprise… and to Ling Qi’s shock, he was easily shoved backward by her shoulder check. Why was he so weak? She had expected it to be like striking a wall, but instead, his arms windmilled as the back of his knees hit the lip of the well. She ducked under his grasping hand with ease and instinctively kicked out, striking his stomach even as she pulled out of reach.
Ling Qi winced at the meaty thwack of flesh striking stone as his head cracked against the back lip of the well, dulled by a flare of blue-white qi. Had he used qi to absorb the damage? Whatever he did, it didn’t stop the boy from falling. His expression was locked into one of fury, pain, and surprise as the well’s mouth expanded before her eyes like the maw of a hungry beast, leaving him nothing to grasp onto as he disappeared down the shaft.
Ling Qi stood there, dumbfounded by how easy it had been, only to wince as a much louder thump resounded from far below, echoing hollowly up the shaft. The distended black void that he had fallen into seemed to wobble for a moment before snapping back down to the size of a normal well. As time resumed its normal pace, she became all too aware of the sticky wetness staining her right hand. A single thought dominated her thoughts.
... That had not been a splash.